Duncan Jones jumps on the video game movie bandwagon with this long-touted fantasy epic. Oscar gives us his verdict.
Warcraft is a strange film to review. On the outside, if most critical reactions mean anything, it appears to be the latest in a long line of failed video game to movie adaptations. But for me, I was quite surprised by how much I enjoyed the film, even considering no prior knowledge of the Warcraft franchise barring some recent research into the series. Trying to encapsulate the lore, spirit and subtleties of a fantasy world as extensive as Azeroth is no easy task, and it was a noble effort on the part of director Duncan Jones. However, I will point to the problems that are apparent and determine whether they are enough to sink the film as a creative endeavour.
A sorceror named Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) unites the orc clans of Draenor into an army called the Horde, promising to lead them into the realm of Azeroth as a new homeland to replace their dying world. Durotan (Toby Kebbell), chieftain of the Frostwolf clan, his pregnant mate Draka (Anna Galvin), and Orgrim Doomhammer (Rob Kazinsky), join this initial strike force. Upon arriving in Azeroth, Draka gives birth to a stillborn child whom Gul’dan resurrects with the Fel, a dark magic that sucks the life out of it’s victims.
Sir Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), commander of the kingdom of Stormwind, receives reports of raids on human villages and meets a young mage named Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), who noticed that the villagers were killed using the Fel. Khadgar persuades Lothar and Llane (Dominic Cooper), King of Stormwind, to consult his reclusive master Medivh (Ben Foster), the fabled Guardian of Azeroth, about the Fel. A scouting team including Lothar, Khadgar and Medivh is dispatched to investigate these attacks but is ambushed by orcs. They fend off the ambush and capture a prisoner: Garona (Paula Patton), a half-orc and Gul’dan’s slave. In an exchange for loyalty to Stormwind, she leads the humans to spy on the orc camp, where they learn of Gul’dan’s plan to bring the entire Horde sacrifice villagers of Azeroth. Studying a book found in Medivh’s library, Khadgar learns that Gul’dan could not have opened the portal on his own…
The acting is rather mixed, but there are a handful of standouts. Fimmel makes for a decently charismatic lead with some snarky wit and earnest moments, Patton has a lot of heart and iron determination as Garona, but again, the romantic angle between them is just not interesting. Foster is quite nuanced and subtle as the mysterious Medivh, but didn’t standout to me as I imagined he would. Cooper makes for a respectable king, even if he is restrained by the archetypical nature of the character. Schnetzer is the one actor to me who seems out-of-place; he came off as alternately annoying and amusing at arbitrary intervals and was overall the weakest link. The two main orc leads were strong enough to carry the film and deserved more attention. Kebbell as Durotan was the most three-dimensional character in the film; he’s the most likable and the one with the clearest emotional arc in the film. Kazinsky and Galvin give nuanced and earnest performances and have good chemistry with Kebbell. Wu is hard to pin down as a character, as he does seem to be fairly one-note as a villain; intimidating and cruel but not at all subtle. The supporting human and orcish characters don’t get a lot to say or do. We have a lot of extraneous personalities who are supposed to add to the story and main ensemble, such as Lothar’s son, but ultimately I felt nothing for their presence.
There is a fine balance of intricate sets and detailed CG backgrounds, and the two blend together quite nicely. The cinematography matches the colourful and upbeat tone of the film and could turn out extraordinarily beautiful at times, but at other moments, when it tried to emulate camera angles from the game, it is really jarring. The action itself had its highs and lows, though for me, it was mostly highs. They were not held back by the PG-13 rating, and the orcs had incredible weight and presence to the brutal way they fight, even getting away with a few splatterings of orcish blood. The fights feel epic while not falling into that sense of weightless CGI or over-the-top redundancy. Ramin Djawadi composes one of his better scores for this film, highlighting the adventurous tone and set-pieces nicely, and he comes up with a very stirring and memorable main theme, as well as the theme for the Horde.
In terms of visual effects, there was a lot to admire, starting with the incredible landscapes and mythical creatures like wargs or griffons, but the orcs were by far the standouts. You could see every wrinkle of skin and every little hair on these guys’ bodies, to the same high standard that we’ve seen from some of the best motion-capture characters in film. The VFX artists put their all into it, despite the exaggerated nature of everything, and stuck the landing nicely, arguably being superior to some better-received CG blockbusters. But, as before, there were a handful of effects shots that didn’t measure up to the high standard set with the orcs. At times, the amount of computer-generated orcs and landscapes is rather overwhelming; it starts to look more like a high concept animated film with a lot of money behind it. With that said, it didn’t take me out of the film and I was engaged throughout.
The script itself is part of the problem; co-written by Jones and Charles Leavitt, it reads almost like an old school 80s fantasy film in tone and execution, but with the high level of lore trappings seen in a Tolkien film. Sometimes, the dialogue was fairly standard and it could also be really awkward, so it lacks a consistent quality. There is a lot of exposition to be conveyed in order to setup the world and the story, but the lack of much-needed character beats hurts the film. Despite being able to follow the film’s rough outline, I didn’t have a good grasp of what Kirin Tor was, or the relation to the other realms in context to Stormwind. The narrative structure is not very clear; we jump from Lothar, Durotan or other characters quite frequently and, as mentioned before, Durotan is the one who emerges with the most development. Because it doesn’t have a clear focus on either of our leads, it feels jumbled while still fairly linear. The climax, for all the epic scope and eye candy, is pure overload and an array of action, colour and flashy cinematography. That was the one time I did feel the length of the film starting to weigh down on me, because at first it was enjoyable eye-candy, but eventually, I felt like it was losing focus on the human element. Fortunately, it does manage to regain that footing and conclude in a reasonably satisfying way.
The aesthetic has been slated as cartoonish and over-the-top, lacking the grittiness of previous fantasy films. It didn’t particularly bother me because I accepted it as a world unique from Middle-earth, Westeros, Narnia and other familiar realms, and for being faithful to the design and character of the video game series. I don’t agree with the sentiment of the film’s look being “tacky”, since it is its own look and not trying to emulate another great film or saga. I was worried they would struggle to balance normal-sized humans with enormous orcs without it breaking the film, and that was another hurdle they were able to leap. Even with magic being a potential plotbreaker in many fantasy films, the way they handle it by allowing it to stay true to how magic is used in the game – while not making it cheesy or look like a cheat – was another impressive feat.
I will admit that, because of the relatively slim two-hour running time, characters are not as developed as they should be. At this length, it moves along at a very brisk pace, taking us from location to location, from character to character, battle to battle with seemingly little downtime in between. It’s almost as though Jones is the tour guide of Azeroth and we only have a limited amount of time to explore it. I don’t believe this was laziness on the production’s part, however. I liked that he seemed to give every character and part of the world a fair chance to hog the limelight, making it more of an ensemble film with a lot of ground to cover. Every scene felt important, even with the extensive action scenes.
Within the first ten minutes, the film immersed me in the world of Azeroth, and I fully understood the context for the world and the dynamic between the races. In contrast to previous iterations of orcs, they were presented as an honourable race who have been taken over by individuals with twisted desires. It was refreshing to see orcs as distinguished beings rather than simply the thralls of evil overlords. The irony comes, of course, from Gul’dan’s obviously evil nature, but the sense of discord and resentment between the orc clans is still presented to us through Durotan and the few who agree with him.
The thematic conceits of the film, such as they are, focus primarily on duality, family and legacy. Men and women are shown on equal footing in both the Horde and in Azeroth, and we see how both sides have compelling reasons for their actions, and how strife is found on both sides of the divide due to the corrupting influence of magic. The orcs naturally want a new home to settle upon and the humans naturally want to defend their homeland. Both orcs and homo-sapiens are very effectively humanised, and you are compelled to sympathise with both sides and also despise those in both factions who spur them on to war. There is a parallel drawn between Durotan, his infant son and Lothar, and his son who is already in the army, and the impact of the brewing war is felt on both sides. The legacy of the orcs coming to Azeroth seems to be permanently marred by their association with a deranged sorceror and the death and destruction they wreaked, but they still strive to retain their honour. The film concludes with an element of hope regarding peace between humans and orcs.
In conclusion, while Warcraft might be unfairly-maligned, it does ask a lot from your attention and a willing suspension of disbelief from the viewer; you have to embrace the style of the game and roll with it. I believe it has real flaws but also genuine virtues, and as someone who has never had the chance to become a fan of the game series, it was an enticing vision presented before me. What I will say is that it does not reach the levels of depth and sophistication we can find in the best fantasy films. Jones has had a tricky tightrope to walk with trying to leave his own directorial stamp on a behemoth of a blockbuster while still translating it well from one medium to another. This film was a step in the right direction, but let us hope that Assassin’s Creed will be enough to turn the tide of bias against video game movies completely.