Gary Gygax is dead. Long live Gary Gygax. The Dungeons & Dragons co-creator may have traveled to another plane, but the kind of modern fantasy double-life he popularized is still with us. Witness Darkon, a new documentary by Luke Meyer and Andrew Neel that focuses on a band of live-action role playing (LARP) gamers who spend their weekdays manning desks and doing laundry, and their weekends conquering kingdoms.
Darkon has a lot of things going for it, among them a strong narrative: In the fantasy kingdom of Darkon, the nation of Mordam, led by Keldar (aka lank white-collar guy Kenyon Wells), has lorded over the other nations in the game long enough that upstart Bannor (beefy stay-at-home dad Skip Lipman) organizes a rebellion to bring Mordam down a few pegs. Between sequences when the LARPers don armor and swing foam-padded swords at each other, the filmmakers spend time with the players in their everyday lives—not that Darkon and the real world are walled off from each other. Wells seems to credit the game with helping him become a smug yuppie; others use it to work up their confidence so that they can maybe someday talk to girls. Rebecca Thurmond, a single mom with a hard-knock past, seems to genuinely need her time in another, less consequential world, as does an unnamed Iraq War vet. At the same time, the real world crosses over into fantasy, too, with politicking and bickering, shade-throwing, and friendships coming apart.
Meyer and Neel have created a handsome artifact here: Their camerawork is polished and often dramatic, especially the chaotic battle sequences. If Darkon offers no great revelations about the game or the people who play it, it stands as a respectful ethnography of a modern tribe half stuck in another world.