A CGI dragon flies high in the sky, above snow-capped mountains. We’re in a faraway land far removed from our reality, in which – as a voice over nicely exposes to the viewer – humans and dwarves are in the midst of a racial conflict.
When humans created technology, it made dwarves’ natural mining skills obsolete, taking away from them their cultural and economic power.
This is a basic fantasy pitch, and as the camera followed the digital dragon in its flight, I couldn’t help but expect another Lord of the Rings copycat, my eyes already bracing themselves for the poorly-rendered CGI-fest that would be the inevitable ending battle between the two factions.
But instead, the dragon flew off-screen never to be seen again and the camera dived deep into the darkness of the film’s only setting from then on: mine #347864.
After a mining accident causing the collapse of the mine, three dwarves, one human overseer, and one lurking monster find themselves trapped inside the dark and narrow tunnels with very little resources and only two options: find an escape route or wait for their rescue.
And just like that, Dragon Mountain became not just an umpteenth fantasy movie with little to no originality, but a captivating psychological thriller / horror movie set in a fantasy world.
Each of the three dwarves is endearing and well-developed: Calcas, John Hutton (“Lincoln”, “Juncture”), who suffered an injury during the collapse, is the smartest of the three yet his enigmatic nature causes Brenn, Robert Morgan (“Hacksaw Ridge“, “Solo: A Star Wars Story“), a proud and wary veteran miner, to distrust him.
Odryd, Brent Bateman (“Birdman”, “Touched With Fire”), the third one, is a naïve and optimistic family man (or rather, dwarf) who carries amongst all three the most hopeful nature.
The human overseer (played by Jess Kane and voiced by Serah Henesey) is also an important character, but because of the world building establishing that humans have trouble breathing inside the mines and need a special costume and mask covering their entire head and body, she is a difficult character to relate or get attached to – although she does have her moments.
The costume design and hair & make up is detailed and beautiful. Despite the conventionality of the dwarves’ look, with their large noses, big overflowing facial hair and rugged leather outfits, everything was crafted with great care and leaves us wanting to see every detail possible instead of making do with what we can glimpse in the obscurity.
Same goes with the overseer’s costume, making her look more alien than human yet perfectly conveying the world created by writers Zachary Amundson and Chris Raney.
There is indeed something fascinating in this conflict where humans, whose biology doesn’t allow them to work inside the mines without a specially-made bodysuit, still choose to oversee and enact power on the dwarves who can more naturally work there – a great example of costume design done right to make us think beyond the plot and into the larger story.
Besides the costumes, the three actors playing the dwarves each do great work on their voices, making them rich and deep.
Inside the mine, they mix well with the soundscape; although the echoes of the tunnels could have been used more efficiently, the film instead focuses on close sounds like the feet on gravel or the creaking of the outfits, enveloping the viewer even more tightly in the claustrophobic space.
The original score by Zack Martin never covers the sound but rather provides a soft, haunting melody tinged with melancholy that reminds us of the fight between hope and despair present in each of the characters; because at its core, this is what the movie is about: whether or not these characters will make it, and what are they willing to do, believe in or hide to others in order to keep the hope alive.
Sure, there is also an actual monster in the midst of all that, bringing an element of horror in the film – the creature looks incredible, entirely done with practical effects and crafted with as much care as everything else – but it is quickly apparent that the real horror is the characters’ captivity and the unpredictability of their fate.
This central part of the film goes hand in hand with the amazing work by cinematographer Ambrose Eng regarding lighting. The torches that help the characters light the way also project large shadows on the walls that look as if they’re enveloping the dwarves even further into darkness, and the electric lamps whose battery are dying flicker just as much as each characters’ hope for a sudden and miraculous rescue.
At its core, Dragon Mountain is about characters trying to find the light and hold to it, literally and metaphorically. While it suffers a little from a pacing that could have been better adjusted, it is a very good film showcasing talent on every front, notably from first time director Chris Raney.
It will disappoint fantasy fans looking for a big adventure, but if you’re looking for an original fantasy film or just a thriller or drama regardless of the setting, you will probably find a lot to love here.