Warcraft (2016)

06/12/2016  By  Joseph Wade     No comments

What is this movie? Who is it for, exactly? Why is Ben Foster running around looking like Obi-Wan Kenobi just climbed out of a dumpster? These were some of the questions running through my mind during Warcraft, a film Blizzard Entertainment has been developing for the better part of a decade. Finally brought to life by Moon director Duncan Jones, the film does a decent job at adapting the look and feel of the Warcraft video games, but the story constantly trips over its own stuffy self-importance and plot mandates. This is serious fantasy for serious fantasy fans, and it is a seriously huge mess.

The film tells the story of the conflict that kicks off the entire Warcraft saga. The orc homeworld of Draenor is dying thanks to an evil magic, and orc wizard Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) bands his people together to invade the human homeworld of Azeroth. Chieftain Durotan (Toby Kebbell) sees Azeroth as a chance at a new life for his wife and newborn son, and leads his clan into Azeroth out of a sense of duty. Of course, the humans don’t take this invasion lightly, and King Llane (Dominic Cooper) sends his top knight Lothar (Travis Fimmel) to fight the horde. Lothar captures an orc halfbreed named Garona (Paula Patton), who becomes something of a diplomat between the two races. Meanwhile, a young mage named Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) investigates the evil magic leaking into Azeroth with the help of The Guardian (Ben Foster), the high wizard of…

Ehhh, you get the point.

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Good wizards, bad wizards, opposing armies, heroes and villains on both sides, light romance; Warcraft rips every last play out of the Tolkien/McCaffery playbook and runs them all as hard as it possibly can. This is a big, bold attempt at giving Warcraft the cinematic treatment, and when it works at all, it’s almost kind of admirable.

Jones gives Durotan and Lothar equal footing as heroes in their own stories, pitting humans and orcs as likeminded races forced into conflict through circumstance. Durotan actually gets the more compelling story, driven to do what’s best for his people and his little orc baby. You can see the difficult choices weighing on his huge CGI face, and Toby Kebbell gives a surprisingly evocative motion-capture performance. Travis Fimmel, on the other hand, plays Lothar as your stock Fantasy Hero Dude, doing everything with a wink and a nudge like he’s aware of how schlocky all of this is. Fimmel actually seems like he’s having fun in the role, but that feeling betrays him during Lothar’s more emotional scenes. He struggles to keep a straight face through most of it.

And while it pains me to see Ben Foster trapped in yet another completely thankless role, the film gives the real short end of the stick to Paula Patton. Garona is not unlike Zoe Saldana’s character in Guardians of the Galaxy, partly because they’re painted green and their names are nearly identical. More to the point, though, the film absolutely refuses to develop her character. Garona walks among orcs and humans alike not knowing where she fits in, but save for an out-of-nowhere development near the end, she inhabits this film with no clear purpose. The movie mostly keeps her around to be ogled by slackjawed knights, all handled about as awkwardly as you might imagine.

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Lothar is too embarrassed to make a move while the king is watching.

That the script pays equal time to Lothar, Durotan and Garona is a big part of what torpedoes the film. We jump back and forth between the humans and the orcs, the story taking great pains to build up our sympathies on both sides of the fight. That in itself isn’t so much a problem; it’s actually quite unique. It feels more sincere to paint the orcs as sympathetic people in their own right and not simply an army of big angry Shreks. In a film that runs two hours and change, though, it eats into valuable screen time that could be used to enrich an already threadbare story. There are so many moving pieces at work here that it struggles to establish anything properly.

Warcraft‘s plot is so densely packed that it’s nigh impenetrable to a casual viewer.

What’s up with the wacky mage university floating in the sky? Or the shadow lady played by Glenn Close for ten seconds? Or the blue people Gul’dar murders en masse to open the portal to Azeroth? We’ll never know, because this film has a thousand agendas to serve, and keeps dropping new weird shit on us scene after scene. It moves at the pace of the prologue to Lord of the Rings, highlighting backstory, introducing characters and locations, but has so much ground to cover that it never slows down long enough to let itself breathe.

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The scenes of Durotan hanging out with his wife are so good they should be the whole movie.

The answers to all my questions lie in the video games (or failing that some wiki page), but maybe I don’t want to turn my night at the movies into a multimedia experience. Maybe a feature film should be able to stand on its own and tell one coherent story. Maybe Duncan Jones’ reach simply exceeded his grasp on this one. It’s telling that Blizzard is betting on the other side of this argument, as every movie ticket sold comes with a free copy of World of Warcraft. Go home after the movie, boot up the game and all will be revealed after you’ve signed up for a monthly subscription.

It’s strange that Blizzard and Universal Studios expended this kind of money and effort servicing the needs of such a relatively small audience. Fans of fantasy cinema will probably dig Warcraft as well, but this is a film aimed at one very specific niche. Judging from the user reviews on RottenTomatoes and Metacritic, those fans seem to be pretty happy with the film, so maybe I’m the weird one for thinking it’s a big clunky mess. Warcraft is a hugely ambitious film, no doubt, but all the effects wizardry and fantasy lore in the world can’t hide the fact that it’s far too shallow and moves far too quickly to give it’s story the space and time it needs to truly flourish.

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Big Budget Fantasy Bombast
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"Join the army," they said.
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About Joseph Wade

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Joseph Wade is secretly three bulldogs in a trenchcoat. Their favorite movie is Turner & Hooch.

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