Warcraft (2016) / Fantasy-Action
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy violence
Running Time: 123 min.
Cast: Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, Ben Schnetzer, Toby Kebbell, Robert Kazinsky, Clancy Brown, Daniel Wu, Ruth Negga, Anna Galvin, Callum Keith Rennie
Small role: Glenn Close
Director: Duncan Jones
Screenplay: Duncan Jones, Charles Leavitt
Review published June 12, 2016
Warcraft is based on the massively popular franchise from Blizzard Entertainment, starting as a PC game series, then branching out to card and tabletop games, novels and comics. As with many video game properties, it doesn't fare as well when translating to the screen, primarily because games often borrow so heavily from existing film properties for its look and feel, such that there will always be comparisons to be made to other well-known movies, rendering the adaptation as instantly derivative for critics and avid film buffs, regardless of how well it captures the spirit of the original game.
Perhaps it's unfair, given that the first "Warcraft" game, "Warcraft: Orcs and Humans", was released in 1994, to state this Warcraft is a shameless rip-off of such properties as Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy or James Cameron's Avatar, and, to a lesser extent, HBO's "Game of Thrones", but in comparing apples to apples for the purpose of this review, I would be remiss in not mentioning that there might not be a Warcraft film were it not for the recent success of other properties just like it.
Much like in Homer's "The Iliad", the storyline told from both parties involved in the war, we're introduced into this fantasy universe through the Orcs first, a warlike race of strong brutes who livelihoods are on the verge of extinction, forcing them to find a new home with the magical invention of a portal, crafted by the Orc-mage Gul'dan (Wu, Europa Report), to connect them to the realm of Azeroth, there the Humans live in a time of relative peace and prosperity. In order to have the magical energy necessary to bring all of the Orcs through the temporary gateway, Gul'dan is using Fel, which is a type of magic that extinguishes the life from those around him to fuel the wielder, while also furthering him on the path toward evil and madness as he grows more powerful. This means the Humans are going to be exterminated so that the Orcs can survive.
However, some of the Orcs recognize that following a mad and power-hungry leader also means going against their core beliefs as a race, so a faction of the Orcs, under the leadership of the noble soldier Durotan (Kebbell, Fantastic Four), begin to ally with the Humans to put plans in place to stop Gul'dan from more acts of destruction. Meanwhile, the Guardian of the Humans, a mighty wizard named Medivh (Foster, The Finest Hours), is also utilizing the power of Fel in order to help protect the kingdom, though that also means that he too will be seduced into darkness that will put the lives of everyone, not just Orcs, in mortal jeopardy.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect for most critics going into Warcraft is that it's directed and co-written by Duncan Jones, a self-described fan of "World of Warcraft" on the PC, who has come strong out of the gate as a filmmaker with acclaimed films like Moon and Source Code. This is Jones' most ambitious film to date in both scope and budget, but it's perhaps too much for the thoughtful filmmaker to chew on, given not only having to kowtow to his studio and his producers, but also to a rabid fan base who grew up on the game who are not shy about destroying a property in social media if it doesn't conform to their vision of how it should be done, if it should be done at all.
The money invested is there on the screen, for the most part. The use of green-screen during much of the action is fairly obvious, but at least it's eye-popping in that regard, with lots of candy for the eyes, especially in its lush and detailed landscapes, and during battles when any form of magical spells come into play. It has am interesting cast, though no single one of them is strong enough to carry the film, which may mean, in some eyes, that they're mostly miscast, especially the beautiful-but-rangeless Paula Patton (The Do-Over) as Garona, a half-orc who looks like an Orion slave girl with toothpicks on either side of her mouth.
Where Warcraft fails is in giving gravitas to the characters or races that we're seeing fight for their own survival. Jones should get some credit for trying to give us a few main players to follow in this battle, and ones that have small backstory and the semblance of a story arc for them to follow. There are even deaths among a few of the main characters that may come as a genuine surprise for those who manage to be able to keep them apart, though the lack of emotional resonance only underlines the film's problems with their development. There's just not enough time to shore this up before we get to the meat of the matter within the course of a two-hour film that has a ton of dense mythology to explain and major action set-pieces to give us out money's worth in terms of spectacle.
While not without interesting elements, Warcraft is a case of trying to condense an overloaded epic storyline into the course of a two-hour film without providing the basic through-line to get us through it with enough investment in at least one character to make it at all compelling. George Lucas managed to do this will in the original Star Wars, mostly because we were given Luke's journey to follow, and we were introduced to the major battles for the galaxy through his eyes. The same with Frodo through Middle Earth in The Fellowship of the Ring. Not so with Warcraft, which unloads too many characters on us all at once, each with their own perspectives we're barely clued in to before they engage in massive battle sequences. It also lacks the charm and comical elements that made those other films enthralling for young and old alike.
Fans of the game series may find their familiarity with the mythos to be helpful in understanding what's the what, and will likely have a better chance of enjoyment in enjoying what Duncan Jones is trying to do for the big screen adaptation. It's not a bad film, per se, but the ideas that have gone in to the construction of the film impede making it a good film. The film also presumes there will be a sequel, which may actually happen, given that the film, while tanking in the United States, is enjoying solid worldwide box office returns, earning nearly its $160 million production budget back in China in just its first week of release. Perhaps the next chapter will have the story arc we need to invest us in the "world of Warcraft" in the way this one does not.
©2016 Vince Leo