After years of films based on video games turning out poorly and getting negative reception all around because of their trying to distance themselves from their source material too hard, here’s one with curiously the opposite affliction: getting drug through the mud because it’s *too* slavishly faithful to the series from whence it came.
Such is the case with Warcraft, the first stab at adapting the immensely popular video game franchise of the same name from Blizzard Entertainment into cinematic form. And lo, modern geek cinema finally has its answer to David Lynch’s Dune: a well-meaning, all around competently constructed genre epic that stumbled quite a bit in some of the most important areas of filmmaking: primarily narrative coherence and solid characterizations. But coming from a purely non-fan’s perspective (apart from being firmly acquainted with South Park’s affectionate and brilliant homage to the popular game franchise) this film in a lot of ways feels like another token fantasy epic living in the post Lord of the Rings / Game of Thrones world of high concept fantasy storytelling. Warcraft aims high – admirably so – for the heart and success of those giants in its first run at a theatrical project, but winds up landing more on the side of a lesser Harry Potter sequel, albeit still not without its individual charms.
Story-wise, there isn’t much to chew on that we haven’t already seen dozens of times already, but for those really chomping at the bit to know just how this all goes down, the film tells conjoining tales of both Orcs (yes Orcs – spelled and pronounced the same way as the *other* big fantasy franchise) and humans in a distant fantasy world both confronted with a dark magic that threatens to destroy both of them indiscriminately if not wielded properly and by the right people. By far the best thing about this film is the Orcs: both their character designs and the performances from the assembled cast, with each one having a truly felt presence within the world of the film, heroes and villains alike.
Particularly noteworthy is Toby Kebbell as Durotan, a motion capture performance that registers the most of all the characters in the film, and whom the screenplay affords the most depth and back-story to – a trait not extended to his human counterparts, but more on that later. Also helping the proceedings is a thumping, bass-heavy musical score from Game of Thrones composer Ramin Djwadi. And however the film ultimately turned out, there’s a clear sense that director Duncan Jones (formerly known for lower-budget sci-fi outings like Moon and Source Code) truly cared about this project without coming across as a mere director-for-hire, and was able to give the whole layout and design of the film a relatively genuine, lived-in feel, amidst all the size and scope a $200 million effects budget can render. But this transparent affection for the source material is less apparent when getting into not so good stuff.
Well, if the Orc characters were clearly the best thing in the film – and make no mistake, they are – then conversely, the human characters are several steps below them, both in terms of narrative development and overall engagement within the story. Whatever the resources in this fantasy realm may be, there is certainly no shortage of interchangeable, generic white male leads and their equally forgettable roles within the larger story. It doesn’t help matters much that the ruler of the human kingdom and the lead knight character look almost identical in a lot of respects, but their characters also aren’t fleshed out strongly enough as to make them feel distinctive from one another. And while a lot of the heavier fantastical elements in the film are relatively digestible and easy to accept once you’re adjusted to the setting, there’s just something about the way the wizard characters were written and performed that just feels extra goofy and unintentionally campy – at least, not in the earnest manner that the Orc side-stories are tonally handled. The wishy-washy effects work and Ben Foster’s puzzling performance don’t do much to help either.
Then there’s the plot, which admittedly made sense on a moment to moment basis, but which on the whole still comes across as feeling jumbled and rehashed. And given all the world building details and franchise lore that needed to be crammed into this one film in order to make for a satisfying viewing experience, is it any shock that at a measly two hours, the whole enterprise feels just a tad undercooked and rushed? Well, more than a tad, but you get the picture. The writing is at times far too exposition heavy, whereas Lord of the Rings, for example, got all of its backstory and world history over with in a less than 10 minute intro, then let the characters (and by extension, the audience) discover what’s left out there progressively throughout the rest of the series. No doubt Warcraft has that in store for us later on, but the here and now of the screenplay isn’t as well handled.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Warcraft will please fans of the video game, as well as people who find lots of enjoyment in high-concept fantasy franchises in general. It’s just too bad that Duncan Jones and company didn’t think to make the material appealing to those who might not be as familiar with the series beforehand. While this certainly isn’t the utter disaster certain critical outcries might have you believe, it registers as more of a mixed bag than anything else, though I could see it emerging as a future camp/cult classic in the years to come. Not without its virtues, but ultimately a middling experience for the uninitiated.