Review: Warcraft (2016)

Warcraft

Rating

Director

Duncan Jones

Screenplay

Charles Leavitt, Duncan Jones

Length

123 minutes

Starring

Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, Toby Kebbell, Ben Schnetzer, Robert Kazinsky, Clancy Brown, Daniel Wu, Ruth Negga, Anna Galvin, Callum Keith Rennie, Burkely Duffield, Ryan Robbins

MPAA Rating

PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy violence

Original Preview

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Soundtrack

Poster

Source Material

Review

After a decade of production struggles and staff woes, Blizzard Entertainment’s massively popular video game franchise has finally been brought to the big screen. The question is not whether Warcraft will appeal to its legions of fans, but whether it will appeal to the general populace as well.

In 1994, Blizzard Entertainment turned the video game world on its ear with its seminal production: Warcraft: Orcs & Humans. While not the first of its kind, the game became something of a cultural touchstone that, over the course of 22 years, has spawned two additional real-time strategy (RTS) games, a massively-multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG or MMO), and eight expansions to those properties. World of Warcraft, the MMO whose popularity helped catapult the feature film into initial production, once boasted over 11 million subscribers at its peak. No other MMO has been able to eclipse that popularity and, although it has fewer than half of its peak subscribers, it is still the most played MMO still in production.

Blizzard’s history and the Warcraft franchise’s popularity are not to be ignored when discussing the film, for it’s those dedicated fans that have kept the prospect of a feature film alive, even after the departure of director Sam Raimi (Evil Dead, Spider-Man) and the arrival of Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code), both ardent Warcraft players. The film was beset from the beginning with trouble and after re-writes and script tinkering was completed, the final product was promised as a tribute to the millions of fans of the games and it more than delivers in that regard.

This story sets itself within the framework of the original video game. As their homeworld of Draenor crumbles, a race of barbarian orcs have put the finishing touches on a massive portal that will lead them into the resourceful land of Azeroth, a realm where humans have lived in peace for many years. As the large war band fights its way across the Seven Kingdoms towards Stormwind, the humans must find a way to overcome the massive threat and employ all resources they can to protect their people.

Warcraft is heavy on plot and significantly reliant on a basic working knowledge of the game universe. Having played the MMO since “Vanilla,” a term used to describe the original game of World of Warcraft prior to the release of any of its six expansions, I easily recognized many of the names and all of the places depicted in the film. The full history of the first war with the orcs was not as familiar to me going in, but the film did a satisfactory job explaining what was going on and the stakes, but I have no difficulty admitting that those completely unfamiliar will have trouble understanding the logistics and magic on display.

Fans of the franchise will no doubt recognize the molten steelworks of Ironforge, the purple spires of Dalaran, the district-segregated colored roofs of Stormwind, and countless other locales that are a so easily identifiable. These visual cues are all geared towards engaging those familiar with the universe and aren’t so obscure that audiences won’t appreciate their grandeur and beauty.

Bringing the orcs to life, Toby Kebbell (War Horse, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) as Frostwolf clan leader Durotan, Robert Kazinsky (EastEnders, Pacific Rim) as his second-in-command Orgrim Doomhammer, and Daniel Wu (Tai Chi 0, The Last Supper) as the imperious, fel magic-corrupted orc warlock Gul’dan build the gravity and depth of these brutish creatures through use of motion-capture technology. Exemplifying their tribal and proud nature, their senses of honor and family, these three actors do most of the film’s heavy lifting and provide ample evidence that, while they are warlike and vicious, there is something stronger and more noble about them. Except Gul’dan. He’s a twisted, evil megalomaniac so addicted to fel magic that he seems utterly unconcerned about the countless lives he’s taking just to bolster his own power. Wu is the film’s MVP without question.

One of the challenges of bringing this film to life was telling the story of invaders who have, among them, respectable and credible figures. In most films, to contrast this, you must have a strong opponent that lacks many of the qualities the protagonists project. Here, director Duncan Jones and his co-writer Charles Leavitt face the difficulty of also presenting the humans as kind, compassionate, and full of conviction. The film doesn’t always succeed, but that has more to do with the actors’ inability to deliver lines that feel clichéd and too often clunky.

Leading the human ensemble is Travis Fimmel (The Baytown Outlaws, Vikings) as Anduin Lothar, brother to the queen (Ruth Negga) and courageous leader of the Stormwind military; his performance is fine, if one-note in patches. Dominic Cooper (The History Boys, Captain America: The First Avenger) plays King Llane, a noble and passionate leader who registers as well as any ruler could. As the Guardian, wizard supreme Medivh, Ben Foster (Alpha Dog, 3:10 to Yuma),a fine actor with the inability to select breakthrough roles, conveys a sense of foreboding and world-weary intensity that comes off entirely overzealous by film’s end. Ben Schnetzer (The Book Thief, Pride) plays the impressionable young wizard Khadgar who must uncover the truth behind Gul’dan’s power and figure out the best way to defeat him.

This is a cast of immense size that might have been better served by breaking into parts focusing on each group of characters instead of relying on the audience to pick up all their plot details with minimal narrative input. Throw in with the orcs and humans a half-human, half-or woman named Garona played by Paula Patton (Precious, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) who helps facilitate a union between the beleaguered humans and the orcs concerned with their humanity, and you have a truly unwieldy cast. As The Lord of the Rings trilogy proved, that doesn’t have to be an impediment. Unfortunately, the way Peter Jackson and company got to their end goal was far stronger than anything on display here.

Once you get past the inherent confusion and mental categorization you need to understand who these people are and what they fight for, you’re left with a plot that’s not terribly original, but works incredibly well within the confines of this production. The awfulness of the orcs’ acts against the native races of Draenor (the Draenei if you didn’t already know) set up quickly the dire consequences of failure. Meanwhile, Durotan’s decision to be a better man for the sake of his wife and child, and for the protection of his race makes for a compelling narrative in itself. Toss in the fight to prevent the murder and overrun of the human kingdom and you have a weighty, ungainly narrative that threatens to topple over for a casual moviegoer and is an embarrassment of riches for any fan of the games.

The lands of Azeroth and Dreanor are a stark contrast to one another, but are undeniably spectacular. The visual effects artists and craftsmen that recreated and embellished the assets on display in World of Warcraft for the film have done an amazing job. Those familiar with the source material will no doubt be impressed and awed by their faithfulness and splendor, but even the uninitiated can revel in the gorgeous renderings and settings on display. This is a land of rich and glorious detail and the creative folk responsible for it deserve high praise indeed.

Warcraft is a dense and lumbering drama that too often relies on artifice and cliché to tell its story, but with such a large cast of characters, combined with a rich and potent legacy, trying to get everything perfect was likely never to be in the cards. The stories told in and surrounding the video games are tinkered with heavily in this film, but for cinematic purposes the changes fit. This is a film by and for the fans, and if it convinces or persuades someone unfamiliar with the property to pick it up and enjoy that which has presented countless hours of entertainment to its hordes of supporters, all the better.

As a film, Warcraft sputters, teetering between grand brilliance and pointless obeisance. It’s a film that might have been better served by a co-director who had no investment in the property and could divorce himself from the long litany of tributes present in the film. From the guard being turned into a sheep to the brief recognition of the game’s myriad gryphon-based flight paths, the film is heavy on the winks and nods and limited on the character development. These characters are compelling when taken on their own, but when shoehorned into a film to fight for screen dominance with others, they become so hopelessly entwined that only the dedicated will be able to extricate them.

Warcraft had potential and while it realizes much of it, there is still a lot left to develop and perhaps with a touch of success at the international box office, a sequel can help expand and broaden the exploration of the world of Azeroth and the many varied and compelling characters and stories within it.

Oscar Prospects

None

Review Written

June 14, 2016

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