There is no winning in Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) — not really. You can reach the end of a campaign or defeat something very nasty, or reach the highest level in a book that tells you what the highest level could be, but if your friends wish to continue, then you’ll play on. Unlike other games, measurable skill matters not, and those who wish to boast of their achievements in any quantifiable vector will be instantly humbled. Nerds may love their numbers, but here is a nerd-game — an entire nerd universe, in fact — in which numbers merely represent fate, the true subject of the game, and cannot be harnessed outside of Machiavelli’s virtù to meet fortuna. Dutch historian Johan Huizinga wrote in his classic Homo Ludens that play is the human activity most generative to what we now call “culture,” and I’d argue that D&D fulfills the play role for humans who once relied upon myth, ritual, and war to satisfy the kind of game in which rules are erected in order to be stretched and broken — so long as it makes the game more playful. In Catholic Carnival, a fool king plays royalty to both mock power and justify it; in D&D, a player may play out any mythic character of their choosing, so long as the gods (their dungeon master) believe it to be that holiest of holy qualities: fun. Though fate decides a measly four on the twenty-sided dice roll, a deus ex machina appears, rescuing a naïve character from an early grave; or, though a veteran character is nearly a god, his attempts to destroy a new player are impossible, as this new player is the curious younger sibling of the DM, and the veteran is an asshole. In a world run by spreadsheets, data, and scientific certainty, it feels radical to return to that most beautiful aspect of being human — the imagination. This kind of play asks one to don a mask during a sacred dithyramb and pretend (or, perhaps, to finally understand) that the world is malleable.
In other words, Dungeons and Dragons offers an alternative to those who’d demand the world be made into winners and losers — especially to those who believe they have the numbers to prove it. To take away this element of holy play is to rob D&D of its most powerful virtue. But myths must be made and money must be sought, hence the successful series of novels based in the Forgotten Realms (D&D’s catchall “world” for its stories and guidebooks) universe and the new film, Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves. Reduced to a movie, D&D might merely seem like an ersatz version of Tolkien: quests, monsters, dragons, riches, and the other derivatives of high fantasy fiction that entered the nerd realm’s shared imagination in the 20th century. Honor Among Thieves is certainly that, though its sense of playfulness lifts it above our large pile of geek fandom detritus.
The data analysts who comb through the audience surveys at major Hollywood studios must have a wealth of information on teenage boys’ preferred protagonists because, once again, the sarcastic, lovable asshole firmly plants himself in the middle of every scene such that no moment can go by without the teenagers’ beloved sarcasm. Thankfully, it’s Chris Pine this time, and his boyish smile and not-quite-perfect good looks at least make these quips believable. He plays Edgin, a human who tries to do good but succumbs to a life of thievery. After his one-last-heist goes awry, Edgin gathers a band of adventurers to rescue his daughter and defeat the power-hungry Forge Fitzwilliam (Hugh Grant), who may simply be a puppet for even more malevolent forces.
If the narrative beats sound familiar, it’s because the script doesn’t try to fix anything that isn’t broken. Inside this hero’s journey narrative lies a series of scenes that either exposit the realm’s history (excused as “worldbuilding” in fantasy circles) or dazzle the audience with some pretty impressive Unreal Engine demos. The former is a somewhat necessary drag, but the latter, along with the action sequences, carry the film. Unlike a certain other franchise that likes to keep its productions quarantined to Atlanta warehouses, Honor Among Thieves was shot on location in Northern Ireland and Iceland, allowing the lush, varied landscapes (and a real volcano) to stand in for the Forgotten Realms. These are the lands that birthed the Poetic Edda and many other sources that would inspire Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, Tolkien’s Silmarillion, and — subsequently — contemporary fantasy; so it’s nice to have a respectful nod to these roots before the CGI parades take the frame.
Thankfully, most of the effects help rather than distract from the action. A speedy scene midway through the film follows Edgin’s druid teammate, Doric (Sophia Lillis), as she transforms into a series of animals to infiltrate a castle, spy on the bouncy Grant, and escape. The camera follows her in a seemingly unbroken shot as she flies through cracks as a fly, scampers across soldiers’ feet as a rat, tumbles through a chimney as a bird, and emerges out of a house as a cat, then a deer. Though the sequence is nearly entirely animated, the choice to animate this as a single shot elevates the tension of her escape, while also announcing a vote of confidence for the effects team in an effects-heavy movie. Like all entertainment for adolescent boys, this also features plenty of light beams and explosions, but here, at least, there’s clearly someone composing them.
Ultimately, Honor Among Thieves settles for a rote sword and sorcery journey with a bigger budget and a smaller vision than, say, Albert Pyun’s ‘80s work in similar territory. It stinks of Kevin Feige, given the shopworn screenplay, jokey “meta” asides that beat the audience to make fun of itself, and characters reduced to their roles. But without Disney’s bureaucracy fine-tuning every detail, directors Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daly are able to deliver the best possible version of the post-Feige formula. The action scenes are coherent (thanks in no small part to hiring action movie veteran Michelle Rodriguez to play the role of the barbarian Holga), audiences are not asked to have an advanced degree in the IP in order to have an emotional reaction to carefully timed cameos, and some of the jokes do land. It’s no Conan the Barbarian, nor is it even comparable to simply playing a nice D&D session with good friends, but Honor Among Thieves has a playfulness that its competitors lack.
In a way, the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and ‘90s surrounding D&D was right about one thing: it is literally a form of magic. Despite its reputation for attracting socially-inept nerds, the game only really came alive if a player had a handle on both the real world and the world conjured within their heads. Huizinga’s Homo Ludens notes that religious rituals have always worked according to this logic of play, where improvisatory straddling between worlds (spiritual, mental, or metaphorical — depending on your perspective) caused real change in our physical realm. D&D allows its players to attune to this ancient, limitless play that grants them the basic yet radical power to imagine the world differently. At a time in which major studios promise no alternative to data-driven, audience-tested, demographic- marketed schlock, it’s a good power to have.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 13.