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Confessions first. I’m not a Warcraft player. I know what it is. Seen it. Watched it played. Dabbled once. But never got around to it. That said, I do love games, especially ones that pull me in, cinematically. Many high quality games have made the leap to the big screen, but historically, few have done it right, with Uwe Boll seemingly on a crusade there for a while to single-handedly ruin the good name of every gaming franchise he could get his mitts on (he made a bid to direct this but was hastily turned away). Things are at a turning point though as the video game-to-movie trend is sure to become mainstream (at long last), especially as the superhero bubble looks burst, and studios put more financial backbone into these projects. Warcraft might not be the savior the industry is hoping for but it shows promise and is at least a good time.
It’s directed by Duncan Jones, who’s only credits so far are the phenomenal Moon, which is still one of my favorite films in the genre, and the twisty Source Code. He seems an odd choice for such a large-scale, war-heavy story, but Jones embraces this world with great enthusiasm, both for the characters who inhabit it, and the story built around them. Of the many solid ups this movie has, it is the commitment to the plot that keeps this above water, never sinking to distracting depths where meaningless CGI battles fill up time and screen space. There is in fact, a refreshing lack of fighting here, and in one maybe even courageous choice by Jones, a setup for one that is over just as it starts, which might seem like robbery but is instead a gift. It’s decisions like this throughout, where Jones, working from a screenplay by Charles Leavitt finds ways to surprise in this broad mix of motion-capture and live action.
It will all seem familiar of course to anyone walking in who knows nothing about the games and its numerous expansions. Warcraft the game, created by Blizzard Entertainment, is built upon the traditional archetypes of the fantasy genre, where humans and orcs exist alongside mages and monsters. I’ll say it once and not again, naturally, the film borrows heavily from the Lord of the Rings series, as the game itself is greatly influenced by the Tolkien lore. Jones doesn’t seem too concerned with that comparison, probably because to do otherwise would be to abandon the game as a whole. So, we have landscapes and cities and creatures and humans and dwarves and wizard-types that have a long, comfortable place in their roles, and we must accept that as central to this story as well.
That story begins with the Orcs. We meet a chieftain named Durotan (Toby Kebbell), a proud member of the Orc Horde and leader of the Frostwolf clan who is soon to be the father a baby Orc. His wife Draka (Anna Galvin) lies beside him, days from delivery and the two share a decidedly soft moment to start the film. This is a purposeful exchange meant to gain sympathy for the Orc side of the fight, whose planet is dying. The Orcs follow a powerful warlock named Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) who uses a sinister force called the ‘fel’ to open a portal to the human realm called Azeroth. To fuel this power, Gul’dan requires the lifeforce of the living to maintain its strength and so uses captives on the Orc side to generate enough power for the portal to allow a small army to pass and collect humans on the other side. They begin attacking the smaller villages and word quickly spreads that a new menace has come to the peaceful people of the kingdom.
We then meet Garona Halforcen (Paulla Patton), an orc-ish woman who believes might actually be half-orc and half human. She certainly has the half-human thing going on. She plays a crucial part as the one caught in the middle, trusted by none but needing to choose an allegiance. Is she orc or is she human? It’s an age-old fantasy-trope question. The humans are led by a kindly young king named Llane Wryn (Dominic Cooper). At his side is Lothar (Travis Fimmel), the film’s primary protagonist, who is devoted to the king and serving the people. His son also has place in the army, and as the Orcs make their way closer, the people grow desperate for help. In comes an apprentice mage named Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) who has an interesting story to tell and says he knows the answer to a dark secret. With his help, they enlist the help of “Medivh the Guardian” (Ben Foster), a supremely powerful magician who acts as the realm’s protector. But there are strange things going on, and Khadgar gets summoned by an even more mysterious force (Glenn Close in an uncredited cameo) who has ambiguous but wise words.
It’s ridiculous of course, but so too are all of these stories, good and bad, and if there is a fault to this one, it’s that Jones doesn’t give the story any space for humor. A few welcome but far too brief laughs pop up but don’t really work because the rest of the film is exceedingly heavy-handed. Warcraft takes itself very seriously. A bit more egregious is the lack of depth for most of the characters, simply because there are so many of them. When an extended scene sees the death of a character we hardly know go on to motivate a plot point later on, it lacks the emotional impact it could have had simply because we don’t know anything about the person. Khadgar is another example, where we must listen to him quickly tell his story rather than actually see it happen, so when he returns to a place he has said he ran from, it’s a bit jarring since we have no context or investment in what it is or the who are people living there.
However, Jones does keep things interesting, and adds a surprising layer of emotion to the proceedings. I also applaud Jones for taking risks and since I cannot bring myself to spoil the story, just know that on two occasions, Jones does something with these characters that is entirely unexpected. It’s courageous in these days of safe, franchise-building mega-films. Furthermore, I liked the throwback feel to the movie that might not be so obvious at first. Like an updated 80s sci-fi fantasy sword and sorcery film, it has a big-budget look and a low-budget sensibility. Foster’s Medivh is an excellent example, reminding me of Nicol Williamson‘s Merlin from 1981’s Excalibur. Great stuff.
While there are plenty of lulls and some hackneyed dialog, Warcraft is a solid outing and packs a few good punches as it builds to its necessary sequel-ready ending. Convincing CG effects, some creative direction, and some very good performances make this better than expected, but falls short of its potential.
Director: Duncan Jones
Writers: Duncan Jones, Charles Leavitt
Stars: Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, Toby Kebbell, Ben Schnetzer, Robert Kazinsky, Clancy Brown, Daniel Wu