Movie Review: Warcraft

This lumbering would-be epic based on the popular video game franchise is the biggest, baddest blockbuster of 2016



Directed by Duncan Jones. Starring Ben Foster, Travis Fimmel, Dominic Cooper, Paula Patton, Toby Kebbell, Robert Kazinsky, Daniel Wu, Clancy Brown, Ben Schnetzer, Ruth Negga, Burkely Duffield, Daniel Cudmore, Callum Keith Rennie, Ryan Robbins, Patrick Sabongui, Andre Tricoteux, Christian Sloan, Elena Wurlitzer. Written by Duncan Jones, Charles Leavitt.

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The best scene in Warcraft is its very first, as a human warrior encircles a sword stuck in the ground and we watch him through the POV of the lumbering, grunting beast that dances around him. The scene suggest both conflict and danger, though any real threat is lost when the camera pans and the beast is revealed to be a cartoon.

“Humans and Orcs weren’t always enemies,” voiceover narration helpfully informs us, leading us into two hours of backstory that purports to tell us of how this ages-old conflict came to be.  

It’s quite simple, really. In the film’s very first scenes, the monsters open up a portal to Earth and immediately begin to kill and kidnap humans. They want to drain their lifeforce to re-power the portal, so more monsters can come through to kill more humans.

So, uh, they were always at war. And after two hours of Orcs fighting men during the course of the movie, they’re still at war. Thanks, Warcraft.  

If killing humans isn’t bad enough, the monsters’ magic wipes out all other living things around them, from grass to trees to animals. In an early scene, their leader sucks the lifeforce out of a deer. In another, an Orc warrior picks up a horse, lifts it over his head, and hurls it as a weapon.

And yet, the movie goes to great lengths to get us to sympathize with the monsters. Early on, we see war chief Durotan (voiced by Toby Kebbell), a giant green-brown CGI animated ogre with large tusks protruding from the corners of his mouth, getting intimate with his mate Draka (Anna Galvin) while stroking her pregnant belly.

We’re supposed to like Durotan, I think, especially when he starts to have doubts about the warlord Gul’dan (Daniel Wu), who is leading his people into war and destroying all life around them with his magic.

Yeah, sure, Durotan seems like a nice monster who just wants to do the right thing and raise his monster baby in peace. But he is also a war chief who just participated in sucking the life out of an entire planet and has now come to the land of the humans to do the same.

Other Orcs include a friendly guy with a hammer, another chief with dragon skulls for shoulder pads, and about 500 others who all look identical to me. Oh, and Garona (Paula Patton), a “runt” enslaved by her own kind who is captured by the humans and eventually comes to work with them. While the rest of the Orcs are all cartoonishly animated, Patton amusingly plays this character under a coat of green body paint.

I didn’t sympathize with the monsters despite the script’s best efforts, but I did find them somewhat interesting. That’s good, because the human characters in the film are so thinly sketched they wind up more cartoonish than their animated counterparts.

Those humans include Travis Fimmel as our fearless warrior protagonist, Dominic Cooper as the King (of this whole world?) and Ruth Negga as his wife, and Ben Schnetzer as a young mage who senses the impending monster danger. Oh, and Ben Foster as a Gandalf-like wizard, in the film’s most amusingly hammy performance.

These characters have little to do over the course of the Warcraft other than fight the Orcs. They seem like decent folk but they’re all so bland; I sided with them by default, if only because their opponents are alien monsters killing everything in their path.

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A quick word about the CGI, used not just in the creation of the Orcs but also other characters briefly glimpsed and many of the sets: seven years after Avatar, and the tech work in this $160 million blockbuster pales in comparison.

While James Cameron had confidence in his computer effects, creating a bright, vivid, fully-realized and almost-tangible world, the filmmakers behind Warcraft do not: they employ mist and fog and muddy focus in an attempt to hide the fact that their characters are animated.

The result is one ugly-looking move, a sea of hazy browns and oranges only occasionally brightened up by the glowing green and blue magic effects. Screen composition is cluttered and crowded, with cinematography designed to make best use out of the film’s digital effects.

Warcraft was co-written and directed by Duncan Jones, who had previously made the excellent sci-fi thrillers Moon and Source Code. In this film, there’s clearly an effort to deliver something radically different to the usual formulaic blockbuster, as witnessed by the amount of screentime dedicated to what in another movie would be a race of throwaway monsters that needs no explanation.

But the end result is entirely uninvolving, and a near-complete bore; 2016’s biggest, loudest, most lumbering blockbuster to date.

One caveat to this review. I have never played the immensely popular video games on which the movie is based, nor (unlike other major franchises) had I absorbed anything about it through popular culture.

There are a lot of names dropped throughout the course of the film that were lost upon me but I presume have greater meaning for fans; At one point, there’s a battle cry of “For Azeroth!” and yet I had no idea who or what Azeroth was. After the movie, I discover that it’s the world at stake throughout the film.

With that said, fans of the franchise should get more out of Warcraft than I. As will those who watch Lord of the Rings and think “hey, all these humans and elves and wizards and dwarves are great, but what about the internal moral struggle of the monsters?”

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