A Vibrant World Meets a Dull Story
Few fantasy franchises capture the attention of audiences the world over and make a notable impression upon the mainstream like Warcraft, which has existed in various video game iterations since the franchise’s debut in 1994. It’s a world rich in history, species, heroes, villains, and mysteries. With writer/director Duncan Jones at the helm, the beloved videogame world makes its way to the big screen with Warcraft, and it takes those many elements and brings them to life in an unadulterated form. If only the movie had also brought along a compelling narrative or any emotional investment in its many characters.
Like many of its games, Warcraft centers on the conflict between the humans of the world of Azeroth and the orcs of the world of Draenor, who have invaded Azeroth due to the slow death of their world. As these massive legions of warriors look to make this new world their own, the human kingdoms seek to stave off the invasion while a small group of noble orcs rebel in search of honor and a better world for everyone.
Warcraft’s greatest strength also happens to be one of the largest parts of its own undoing: a massive focus on bringing every possible aspect of the franchise to life in this live action adaptation. While the efforts to make each species look just right, have each location become a breathtaking recreation of the places fans have loved for decades, and have each piece of the lore in its proper place for this adventure should be lauded for their painstaking detail, the focus on fan service also comes at the cost of a satisfying and active narrative.
While many would mistakenly see Warcraft as a Lord of the Rings knockoff, the film and its larger franchise have much more in common with the legions of endless fantasy novels to be found on dime store shelves everywhere. The history of Warcraft is immense, sprawling in all directions and covering a span of hundreds if not thousands of years, with countless characters with their own varied backstories and captivating character arcs populating these worlds. And first and foremost, fun and adventure with a heaping helping of drama are the focus. It’s the result of devoted creators ceaselessly expanding on the franchise and millions of diehard fans passionately supporting the world they love.
But it’s not a story that’s built for multigenerational/broad taste appeal. It’s inherently niche. As a result, not everyone will be as captivated by the minutiae that fill so many scenes. Instead, audiences unfamiliar with Warcraft will be solely focused on the story being told and its select protagonists and villains. And therein lies the issue.
Jones decides to drop audiences into the middle of a world that has clearly been evolving for centuries and with countless characters who each have plenty of history with one another. But while a film like the original Star Wars captivated audiences with its suggestions of a bigger world happening around the tightly focused plot, the story of Warcraft is inextricably linked to the massive, wild world and its countless rules. And without much explanation given to the actions of characters and the reasons for the world to operate as it does, those who do not have an encyclopedic familiarity with the world will largely be forced to swim in the deep end without a moment’s notice.
With so much assumed of the audience, the characters of Warcraft are by and large introduced as people who the audience should immediately care about, yet are never given fully satisfying story arcs to justify the perceived investment. With a cast that is split between motion capture orcs and live action humans, one might assume that it is the humans who are given the most sympathy and emotionally resonant moments.
But it’s the orcs who not only steal the show and give Warcraft greater meaning.
The motion capture work and sheer amount of detail given to each orc is simply stunning, with microexpressions and authentic movements bringing each of these massive, lovingly crafted characters to life. As Durotan, Toby Kebbell gives the film its most interesting moments, and it is his arc that brings something other than the standard hack-and-slash-the-bad-guys story that defines most of the other characters. Along with the villainous Gul’dan and the conflicted Ogrim Doomhammer, the orcs are the reason for Warcraft standing out in what is otherwise very standard fantasy storytelling.
And the humans? Well, it’s a bit like a group of cosplayers got hold of a really big budget. As the human lead, Travis Fimmel’s Sir Anduin Lothar works fine as the generic hero, but there’s not much to him other than a minor tragic backstory, some impressive sword skills, and a mighty beard. The rest fair less favorably, as Ben Foster as the wizard Medivh, Dominic Cooper as King Llane Wrynn, Ben Schnetzer as Khadgar, Paula Patton as the live action half-orc Garona (donning full body paint and an unwieldy pair of tusks) and most other live action actors come off as feeling too modern and glossy for what should be a more lived-in and authentic world. They clash with the largely CGI environment and make everything feel just a little faker. A little more removed. A little harder to care about.
Which is strange for Jones, whose two previous films, Moon and Source Code, dealt with heady sci-fi concepts but were consistently focused on the very intimate, very personal stories at hand. There’s no real intimacy here save for a few scant scenes that deal with brief romance. It also doesn’t help that as the film progresses Jones decides to have the human characters take the lead while the orcs recede into the background. What begins as an orc-centric film slowly becomes a dual-lead between Durotan and Lothar, until finally becoming a human-centric movie. The result shortchanges the orc characters who made the film leap off the screen at the start and gave Warcraft its best moments. It’s immensely frustrating, as you can feel the film forcefully turning your head to look at something you don’t care about, while the most interesting aspects fade into the background.
While Warcraft may not pull off its emotional beats by and large, it most definitely pulls off its cinematography and designs. From massive spiraling towers to lush forests to marble-ensconced throne rooms, this is a world that really pops off the screen. And with so much devised solely from CGI and sets only used for more intimate locations, the level of immersion and consistent suspension of disbelief concerning both this world and its more outlandish characters is incredibly impressive. Jones makes you quickly buy into the reality created here and marvel at the scope of the world instead of constantly wondering how they did what you are seeing.
Those moments of wonder are the true strengths of Warcraft. Not the struggle between good and evil, not the gallons of fan service thrown at the screen, and most certainly not the strangely inert conflict at the center of it all. But a world this vibrant will still shine through the faults. You may just need to look past the story itself to find the best aspects lurking in the background and in the flashes of brilliance that prove Jones’ exciting talents as a director.
Next, read my review of “X-Men: Apocalypse.”