I’m a big fan of the Lord of the Rings, but I quibble with how the orcs are a faceless mass of enemies to be cut down. Do the orcs have families? Homes? Doubts? I’ve always thought we needed another take on a Lord-of-the-Rings-style story that answered these questions.
Warcraft tries its damnedest to be that movie.
It’s based on a popular series of video games, where each player picks a side — human or orc — and then builds up their civilizations and armies before crushing their opponent in pitched battle. The basic premise remains in the film: The humans live on the world of Azeroth, in sometimes uneasy peace with dwarves and elves. Lothar (Travis Fimmel) is a military commander for the kingdom of Stormwind, and is brother-in-law to King Lane (Dominic Cooper). Then there’s Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), a young wizard-in-training. The humans find themselves besieged by an army of orcs from a dying world, lead by the cruel and tyrannical Gul’dan (Daniel Wu). His magical powers are fueled by draining the life from the orcs’ prisoners, and once they finish construction of a new portal, Gul’dan can bring the rest of the orc horde over and conquer Azeroth wholesale.
All of this is helmed by director Duncan Jones, who also wrote the screenplay with Charles Leavitt. Jones’ last two films were Moon and Source Code, both of which were very good. So Jones knows what he’s doing.
Jones is also an obvious fan of the source material, and Warcraft is devoted to its video game movie roots, for both good and ill: grandiose imagery, big bright colors, floating cities, magic societies and turgid names like “Azeroth” and “Stormwind” and “Khadgar.” (Tolkien brought more elegance to his world-building: “Isengard” and “Rohirrim” and “Gandalf” roll of the tongue a bit better.) There’s even Gul’dan’s half-human half-orc slave, Garona (Paula Patton), who’s captured by Lothar and Lane. She gets saddled with the standard character arc of an honor-code savage who slowly warms to benevolent society. And she basically looks like a fan at a video game convention in a really high-end costume.
It’s actually a testament to Patton’s acting that Garona nonetheless remains likable. In fact, the character is forced into a genuinely tragic decision late in the story, and Warcraft makes other admirable stabs at moral complexity: Gul’dan is a monster, but he also saves the child of orc chieftain Durotan (Tobby Kebbel) and Draka (Anna Galvin) from death; later, the orcs turn against Gul’dan when he disrespects their traditions. Durotan realizes it was Gul’dan’s magic that killed the orcs’ pervious home, so he makes contact with Lothar and Lane and hatches a plan to save the orcs, overthrow Gul’dan, and find some peaceful resolution to the conflict.
Warcraft’s story is remarkably dark and weighty, featuring heroes trying to prevent a war rather than win one. Which sort of sits oddly alongside its video game aesthetics: The human weapons and suits of armor are too indulgent and too ornate; the cities and towers are too clean and too dreamlike; even the orcs’ clothing is over-the-top. The film has none of the grounded, “used universe” feel of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. The orcs themselves are hulking green brutes of muscle and tusks, created by computer animation and motion capture. So it takes serious chutzpah on Jones’ part to stage scenes familial intimacy between Durotan and Draka, or gruff joking camaraderie between Durotan and Orgrim.
Yet Jones basically pulls it off: Kebbel and Galvin deliver solid performances. Their ultimate fates are moving. And the animation, while not entirely realistic, communicates both physicality and personality.
Interestingly, it’s the human characters that fare less well. Fimmel and Cooper are satisfactory. But Ben Foster seems bored when he shows up as a uniquely powerful wizard tasked with Azeroth’s defense. And Schnetzer, despite a plucky underdog-makes-good arc for Khadgar, feels like he wondered in off the set of a TV sitcom. On top of that, they’re all young and handsome physical specimens in their 20s and 30s. Are there no old people on Azeroth?
It’s unfortunate Warcraft couldn’t land some bigger name stars or character actors. The plot barely holds together logistically, and its flaws dilute the emotional power Jones is after. But some of the tragedy still lands with force, and the script is not such a disaster that a cast with real chops couldn’t have elevated the material. Apparently, Jones had his own 2 hour and 40 minute cut, versus the 2 hour theatrical release we’re getting. And I wonder if a more fleshed out and coherent story is hiding in that longer version.
Warcraft is exactly what you’d expect to get if a bunch of people genuinely loved a silly video game, came into $200 million, and decided to make some fan fiction that aimed high. Because the filmmakers fall short of the bar they’ve set for themselves, I think a lot of critics feel permission to hate on the film disproportionately. But Warcraft has all the flaws and all the charms its effort entails, and readers can probably figure out from that whether it’s the sort cinematic project they’ll be interested in.
Jones and crew come a lot closer to clearing that bar than most everyone’s giving them credit for. And I, for one, enjoyed watching them try.