[His battlecry… “10 POINTS TO GRYFFINDOR!!!”]
Movies based on video games are never “good”. Often they’ve been “godawful” (Super Mario Bros.), with a few falling into the so-bad-they’re-good category (DOA: Dead or Alive). The best they ever get is “okay” (Resident Evil), with the vast majority falling into the “bland” (Prince of Persia) or “gimmicky” (Final Fantasy) categories. So it may surprise you when I say that I really enjoyed Warcraft, While it certainly has no shortage of “bland” elements, and stumbles over a lot of chances it had to excel, I think it’s about as close as I’ve seen to a video game adaptation being “good” without actually earning that qualifier. It certainly has enough standout qualities for me to call it “above average”. As The Powerwaifu so aptly put it, “I wouldn’t kick it out of bed.”
Full disclosure: my exposure to the Warcraft universe extends to about 10 minutes of trying to get WoW to work on a jittery laptop. The weirdest thing is that I seem to be the main demographic that this film works for: a casual fan of high fantasy with very few expectations. This is a real bummer, because Warcraft feels like it was made for the fans. One of the most honorable things about the film is how uncompromisingly it hews to the style of the game. I may not be able to speak to the uber-dense lore the film consistently stumbles over itself to establish, but the absurdly cartoony aesthetic is matched to a T. And you know… it works. I thought it looked like garbage in the trailers, with the human actors wearing absurdly oversized armor and acting against CG orcs with hands bigger than their heads. But within 10 minutes of the movie, I not only accepted the world’s reality, I enjoyed it.
Warcraft does feature some sketchy compositing of humans over CG elements, but since the humans are usually secluded to their own sets, it gives the CG Orc world time to shine on its own merits. And boy, are those orcs beautiful. The orc protagonist Durotan (Toby Kebbell) may be one of the most well-realized animated characters of all time. Kebbell and the mo-cap animation team deliver an understated and beautifully “human” performance that goes miles to ground The Horde’s place in a war film with few clear “bad guys”.
Chieftan Durotan is probably the best example of everything that goes right with Warcraft. Despite his inhumanity, he’s by far the most likable character in the film, not participating in war because he’s bloodthirsty, but because he has no other options to keep his family and his clan alive. Fatherhood is a major theme in the film, and Durotan’s pathos shines through as pretty much the most thoughtful and badass a dad can get. Worth noting: director Duncan Jones is the son of legendary pop star and poet David Bowie, who passed away mere months ago. Jones himself is also expecting his first child this month. The themes of a father’s legacy and influence being passed to a son are all clearly on the tip of Jones’ mind, and ring all the more true for it. While Durotan is clearly not synonymous with Bowie, they are both leaders willing to think outside the box. Durotan is the ideal patriot, willing to fight for the most practical long-term solutions to conflict, even if they’re the least likely to bring personal glory.
Jones has made a name for himself directing weird little sci-fi films that feel deeply introspective and personal. Both Moon and Source Code have an understated feel that grounds their more “out there” premises, and Jones extends this strategy to Warcraft. A lot of times this works. It works incredibly well with the orcs, who are already so visually cartoonishly monstrous that their often quiet dignity works as a great foil to expectation. But most of the human characters don’t fare nearly as well. Take Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel) for instance, who Powerwaifu affectionately dubbed “Aragorn-lite”. Lothar mirrors Durotan’s struggle. He’s a father, concerned about the affects the war will have on his soldier son. But Lothar’s scenes are more focused on driving the film’s unwieldy plot forward. We never get the equivalent of Durotan, alone with his wife, playfully discussing how to pick a name for their son. We are told that Lothar has loved and lost, and that his relationship with his son is complicated, but we never see that. Fimmel’s performance is basically reduced to intensely staring at people he feels unsure of, occasionally getting a snarky line or unearned moment of gravity.
Plucky mage sidekick Khadgar is a more proactive human hero, (and dang are the spells in this movie awesome looking!), but actor Ben Shnetzer just sucks the life out of every line he utters. I can think of half a dozen amusingly awkward young actors off the top of my head who could have made this role sing – Tom Holland, John Bradely, Alden Ehrenreich, John Boyega, Anton Yelchin, Evan Peters. The mysterious Guardian Medivh fares better, partially because his character has some depth, but more because Ben Foster is a damn fine actor. Paula Patton has a great build for her half-orc character Garona, but her awkwardly dainty underbite and sigh-worthy performance make her character’s every appearance eye-roll worthy. If there were any character that could have used a bit more overacting to sell, it’s Garona. She certainly has more to overcompensate for than any other character, and it actually might have added a statement to the desperation felt by people who feel they have no place in the world.
A lot of critics have complained about the fact that Warcraft feels like an incomplete story. It starts in the middle of massive upheaval, and ends with a great many elements left unresolved. While a cynic might point to this as a cheap ploy to ensure a sequel, it just feels like a slice of mythology to me. I certainly wouldn’t let a Marvel film get away with having so many cliffhangers, but Marvel films are built to be episodic, semi-connected chapters in the lives of a hero, whereas Warcraft feels like it shouldn’t necessarily have a beginning, and will definitely never have an end. Heroes rise and fall in this film, and it seems like the natural way of things (similar to Game of Thrones). From the light comes darkness, and vice-versa, on and on, yada-yada-yada.
Whether or not Duncan Jones was the right man to both direct and co-write (with Charles Leavitt) this film is certainly up for debate. Warcraft often feels like a rogue-class filmmaker was given one of those insane orc warhammers to wield (but… y’know… in film form). The Lord of the Rings would seem like an apt equivalent, but had far fewer protagonists amidst a much longer running time. Plus, Jackson had Phillipa Boyens and Fran Walsh tag-teaming script duty. The Avengers had a similar glut of protagonists, but even Joss Whedon (master of the ensemble) had the benefit of every character being pre-established via the solo films. It’s possible that no filmmaker could have crammed this amount of story into a film and succeeded.
Could Warcraft be better? Absolutely. The casting of most of the humans is the most egregious error, as even the roughest bits of dialogue could have been pulled off with more charisma. But despite how chokingly dense the plot is, with multiple character arcs tripping over each other to come to some cohesive resolution, Jones manages to wade through the insanity with incredible precision. That this comes at the expense of most of the character development was unavoidable, and it’s impressive that so much of it works as well as it does.
If you’re a fan of the Warcraft franchise, or just high fantasy in general, you’ll wanna give this adaptation a shot. It’s worth seeing in theaters, if for no other reason than that the world is a unique and gorgeous addition to the big screen. Whether you’re like me and appreciate the standout elements despite the flaws, or just find the whole thing a colossal failure, it’ll be worth it to your nerd-cred to have an informed opinion. I, for one, really hope that the film’s worldwide box office success warrants a sequel. This world has too much cinematic potential to abandon due to a few wobbly first steps.
3D Reccomendation: Definitely worth the surcharge, but problematic. Since the majority of the film is a CG effect, the most visually resplendent scenes are natively rendered (meaning… they’re perfectly gorgeous). Unfortunately, the conversion work on this film is garbage. Like many cheap conversions, the human face work is problematic, but the real kicker is the amount of foliage on display. It was foolish of them not to attempt to film foliage heavy scenes in 3D, since no amount of cost effective cleanup can be done to convert foliage in post.