“Cry havoc and let slip the orcs of war!” seems like a fitting bit of paraphrasing to describe director/writer Duncan Jones’ adaptation of Warcaft, the first entry in Blizzard Entertainment’s long running classic video game franchise. The film is often haphazard and a bit clumsy, especially in a particularly frantic and breathless opening half. It’s also about as subtle as a CGI Hulk-by-way-of-Burning-Man-attendee’s oversized meat tenderizer to the skull, with many characters being more a personified collection of cool scenes than actual fully realized people. But with all of that being said, I still enjoyed it. Zug zug.
Embracing the source material’s often absurdly colorful and gauche aesthetic with gleeful abandon, there’s an enviable sense of devil be damned filmmaking at play here. Franchise newcomers will either just roll with the punches of the extreme fantasy visuals and storytelling – boasting everything from gryphon-flying knights to weirdly coloured elves and giant clay golems – or be thoroughly put off by its in-your-face stylings. I have a feeling there won’t be much of a middle-ground on this one (Nick walked out of the same screening seriously disliking it), as what Jones and his co-writer Charles Leavitt have constructed here is very much a video game movie in every sense of the word.
The Warcraft video game lore is an epic tome, honed from nearly twenty years of games and extraneous content. And while Warcraft is only touching on the tale of the first video game, it still feels like it’s trying to tell too much story in the opening chapters of its 2-hour running time. Audiences are whipped between ever increasingly fantastical locations and characters with almost no time given to truly expand on any of them, as the movie often misconstrues the presentation of another piece of eye-popping digital architecture with a superimposed title card announcing the location’s name as actual world building.
As a result – and even more fitting with my previous description – it possesses all the character/narrative complexity and subtlety of most actual video games, with events mainly happening just to push impressively garbed characters into imaginatively designed places that allow them to do things in the visually coolest manner possible. But damn are those things cool.
Picking up on the broader strokes of 1994’s “Warcraft: Orcs & Humans”, Warcraft tells of the invasion of the multi-racial fantasy realm of Azeroth by the Orc horde – a tusked race of burly, codified warriors, forced to follow the twisted warlock Guldan (Daniel Wu) through a mysterious massive portal to conquer a new world after their own has become a broken wasteland. Young Orc clan chieftain Durotan (Toby Kebbell) and his trusted adviser/best friend Orgrim Doomhammer (Rob Kazinsky) are wary of Guldan and the dark life-stealing magics he wields to power the portal though, feeling that this frenzied attacking of innocents goes against their traditionally honourable ways.
Meanwhile, in the human kingdom of Stormwind, King Llane Wrynn (Dominic Cooper) is alarmed by growing reports of these unstoppable monsters attacking and kidnapping his people (unbeknownst to them to be used as magic fuel by Guldan to open another portal to bring through the entire Orc horde after an exploratory force has established a foothold). Llane’s worry reaches new heights when his brother-in-law and military commander Lothar Anduin (Travis Fimmel) arrives with a young mage named Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) who has grave suspicions about the magical source of this incursion into their realm. Llane dispatches Lothar and Khadgar to find Medivh (Ben Foster), the powerful Guardian of the land, to assist in repelling the invaders, but the high mage has his own troubles after being absent from the affairs of Azeroth for half a decade.
And when a female half-breed Orc prisoner named Garona (Paula Patton) is captured by the human forces in a bloody skirmish, her wavering allegiance to the Orcs – and specifically Guldan, who kept her chained as little more than a freakish pet – may just provide the heroic Lothar and the rest of the Azeroth forces with their way to win this seemingly impossible war. That’s if her claims of Durotan’s honour and wish for alliance can be trusted.
And all of that essentially boils down to a series of massively escalating action set pieces, comprised of both amazingly detailed practical effects – WETA painstakingly recreated the games’ trademark armour and weapons for real – and simply astounding digital visuals. Jones choreographs things expertly, throwing us headlong into some genuinely bone-crunching, face-melting sword and sorcery action, and seriously getting my blood pumping throughout. But as impressive and enlivening as the numerous magical effects and explosive action is, it’s in the film’s few quieter scenes where it really becomes a technical marvel (especially on IMAX 3D!).
The level of digital detail used to bring the fully-CG orcs to life borders on the insane, with the unbelievably high fidelity doing more than just distending eyeballs in wonder, as the actors mo-capping these creatures are able to show off a full range of gripping emotions. In fact, it’s these digital collections of bits and bytes on screen that have the biggest emotional impact, more so even than their living, breathing counterparts. Kebbell’s Durotan is a figure steeped in both honour and tragedy, and with his arc of being a young father and also husband to the brash Draka (Anna Galvin) lending even more pathos to events.
On the flip side of the coin, Fimmell does a decent job as Lothar when in wry warrior mode, but thanks to the fleeting nature of the script, there’s just not enough time given to his more dramatic emotional beats to have them come off as wholly believable. Sexual tension between Lothar and the humanoid Garona is also just dropped slapdash into the story with very little underpinning it. But that being said, the pair do perform the rest of their thespian tasks well enough (though Patton does grate occasionally), with the other cast members also following suit.
Jones and Leavitt do a great job though in not one-siding affairs: the horde may be the barbaric invaders of these peaceful lands, but it’s most definitely not as straightforward a case of Orc = bad, human = good. And while the story is certainly nowhere remotely close to being as thematically layered or mature as something like Lord of the Rings, it isn’t trying to be and I can definitely applaud – and enjoy – it for that.
So no, this is not the high fantasy epic cinematic messiah come to save us from the seemingly endless scourge of bad taste video game feature film adaptations, but it is a fiercely exciting bit of action-adventure rumpus, with jaw-dropping technical polish. Given some more narrative breathing room, and allowed to focus on the “craft” sections as much as the “war” bits, we may have ended up with something truly mythic. Right now though, it’s just brashly cool fun, and I’m okay with that.
Last Updated: June 25, 2020