Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Warcraft is hardly a blockbuster, at least not in the U.S., in no small part because it's a film based an RPG whose very title has come to serve as cultural shorthand for "only nerds allowed!" It can rest comfortable knowing that at least it's doing better than the last time they tried such a thing.

On 8 December, 2000, one year and two days prior to the world premiere of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, that film's distributor, New Line Cinema, released the last major pre-LOTR fantasy film, Dungeons & Dragons. I offer this primarily in the spirit of context: all these years later, it can be a little hard to remember what fantasy filmmaking used to look like. Well, in 2000, it looked like dog shit. Movies like Dungeons & Dragons were what fantasy movies were prior to New Line's decision to take a gamble on Peter Jackson's plan for a stupefyingly costly trilogy, and movies like Dungeons & Dragons explain why that gamble seemed so terrifying at the time. Prior to 2001, fantasy films lost lots of money, because this is how fucking terrible they were.

So now that I've spoiled the suspense, let's walk back to the start and work our way through Dungeons & Dragons to find out just what about it makes me value it slightly lower than slamming one's hand in a car door. Our story begins in 1990, when an industrious 19-year-old named Courtney Solomon managed to acquire the rights to make a film based on the beloved tabletop RPG first published in the 1970s. God knows what he planned to do with it, but over the course of the decade, he found investors and worked on putting together a team of talented individuals to make the best possible movie from the material that he could produce. The investors just wanted it to be cheap, and so they pushed Solomon into directing it himself, from a script by Topper Lilien & Carroll Cartwright that nobody was thrilled with, but they had it ready to go, so... In later years, Solomon has been admirably forthright about how unprepared he was to direct a movie, and how poor of a job he did, and how it's not his fault anyway because he didn't want to make it this way, but the moneymen fucked it up. The last part is less admirable of him.

Still and all, you can't blame a fella for wanting to wash his hands of Dungeons & Dragons. It really is almost totally devoid of redeeming facets, not even really bad enough to be funny, since one of the things it is worst at is providing comedy, and the first hour of the film is nearly all comedy. That being said, there are certain compensations, and we're introduced to the best of them right off the bat: in a chamber in a castle somewhere, a transparently evil mage (he's all in black and red!) named Profion (Jeremy Irons) is using his magic rod to try controlling a captive dragon. As he explains to his bald and inexplicably blue-lipped henchman Damodar (Bruce Payne), it is thus that he shall be able to use the dragons to take over the empire. Unfortunately, Profion's control is incomplete, and he's obliged to kill the dragon as it starts to attack him.

Now, this probably doesn't special - it probably sounds like the most anonymous kind of Mad Libs approach to writing fantasy you could imagine. And that's fair, because Dungeons & Dragons is very much exactly that kind of fantasy. But what even the most clichΓ©d genre work lacks is the performance Irons gives as Profion. It is majestically terrible. Irons is far, far too good of an actor to stumble into this kind of thing blindly - surely he knew that the script was a nightmare, that the whole film was going to be one long rain of shit, and that nothing he could do would make it better or worse. I expect he also, maybe, just wanted to have fun. Whatever the case, he starts off at bugfuck crazy and manages to keep turning it up, every time we see him in his much-too-small role. He delivers every line with an enthusiastic bark like he's right in the middle of great sex, an impression underscored by the licentious, horny looks he keeps flashing, and the greedy way he caresses the dragon rod. Impressively, he's able to get louder and hornier as the film goes along, culminating in his delivery of the line "LET THEIR BLOOD RAIN FROM THE SKYYYYYYYYYY" with his arms stretched up and his eyes so wide you think they'll jump right out of his face, and his voice simultaneously hoarse, loud, and triumphant, like he's cumming and cumming right there on set.

I am sorry to say that nothing else in Dungeons & Dragons is as good as Jeremy Irons. Not even close. But there is some shamelessly hammy acting if you know where to look, and some forcibly High Fantasie dialogue that is giggle-inducing in about the same way that watching really enthusiastic LARPers can be. Mostly, though, there is not that at all. Mostly, there is unbearable shit, in the form of our three incredibly awful leads. We should get back to the plot, right? It's total boilerplate: Profion, we know, wants to depose the young Empress Savina (Thora Birch), who is planning to democratise the realm of Izmir, and to stop him, she needs the magic wand that controls red dragons. Accident and happenstance force that job onto Ridley (Justin Whalin), Snails (Marlon Wayans), Marina Pretensa (Zoe McLellan), and Elwood (Lee Arenberg) - a pair of Thieves, a low-level Mage, and a Dwarf, which is not a very good party, and their dungeon master must have had a hell of a time coming up with ways to keep them from dying. Damodar, being much cheaper than Profion, proves to be their primary foe, chasing them and always just barely failing to capture them; at a certain point, they add Norda the sexy Elf (Kristen Wilson) to their band, while Ridley learns that deep within him is the capacity to be the One True Hero who can find the Eye of the Dragon and enter the magic cavern where the dragon wand is kept. Battles occasionally spring up, as does some tremendously lousy CGI - but complaining that a low-budget film from 2000 has crappy CGI is just piling on, I won't do that again. And it is, legitimately, nice to see certain creatures and sets done practically that would be shiny, hollow computer effects these days.

The point being, the plot is excruciatingly straightforward, without a single element that even the greenest fantasy watcher could think for a minute qualifies as fresh or unexpected. The are ways around that: great production value, which Dungeons & Dragons lacks - it is cheap and looks cheap, the director has no idea how to set up an interesting shot, and the cinematographer, Douglas Milsome, has an annoying tendency to overlight. Or the film could have great, likable characters that we want to spend a lot of time with, which it lacks even more: indeed, while it's possible to stomach the cheapness of the production, especially if you've logged enough time with low-budget fantasy from the '80s and '90s, the characters and acting are truly unendurable. Snails is, by far, the worst: he's the comic relief, which in practice means he's terrified of everything and squeals a lot, a Mantan Moreland character brought intact to the very brink of the 21st Century without anybody appearing to give a shit that the cringing black guy trope was obnoxious and offensive even in the '40s. Wayans exacerbates the problems with the character in every possible way, pitching his voice up to dog whistle levels and mugging in every single scene, so much that it stops registering after a while. It takes a lot to give the worst performance in a movie with such wall-to-wall terrible acting, in nearly every different way that acting can be terrible, but it's not even close.

But let's not let the rest of the cast off the hook. There's some magically wretched work being done: Birch appears to be fast asleep in half her scenes and actively bored in the rest; Payne attempts to deal with the goofy, overwrought dialogue by saying it very slowly and very deeply, and he comes off like kid play-acting at being a bad guy; McLellan keeps her eyes way the hell wide open and keeps darting her face around with a blank, but vaguely nervous expression, like a bunny when you shine a flashlight on it. Whalin, relative to everybody else with a big part, comes across as pretty solid by default, which reflects terribly on everybody else: he's the most generic kind of pretty white boy, with distractingly high cheekbones, and an annoyingly chipper attitude, like he's a princess in a Disney movie and as long as he smiles hard enough, all his problems will go away.

Wayans and Whalin dominate the first half of the movie, and it is an atrocious slog: between them, they radiate fluffy insincerity and their dialogue is all jarringly modern and slangy. That is the most hateful element of a film that does pretty much nothing right, from its sloppy plotting (especially concerning how much magic Marina can do at any point), its foggy exposition, its Halloween costume props, its plasticky sets, its drearily florid adventure score by Justin Caine Burnett. Happily, in an extraordinarily uncommon development for the awful comic relief, Snails dies about an hour into the movie; the whole thing takes an enormous step up, although whether that's because the plot chooses at about this moment to start propelling itself forward, or just that it's such a sweet relief not to have to deal with that odious fucker and his dipshit anachronistic dialogue and personality, I really couldn't say.

Anyway, even at its best, there's really not much joy to dig out of this. There's a campy cameo by Richard O'Brien, and a soothing one by Tom Baker, and they make up between them the only people onscreen besides Irons who are in any way rewarding to watch. There's a fight with magic swords that briefly calls to mind Return of the Jedi, and you can distract yourself for like 30 seconds by thinking about that movie instead. There's a scene where Birch has a little gold headpiece like a four-inch tree with little tiny balls on it growing out of her forehead, and it's mesmerising, how every time she moves her body even slightly, the little balls shake and dance. The rest is trash: ugly trash, overlit to accentuate how fake everything looks, leading to a fantasy world that feels about as ethereal as some plaster backdrops in a public park. Whatever shred of magic might have survived the groaner of a screenplay is stamped out entirely by the top-to-bottom crappy filmmaking, and the whole thing is entirely without a spark of life or energy or awe. It is as unpleasant and devoid of fun as fantasy filmmaking with anything resembling a budget could possibly manage to be.

And Christ knows what any of this has to do with the game, anyway.

1/10