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Film Review: Warcraft

Warcraft (2016; Directed by Duncan Jones)

Warcraft has much to recommend it and much to dissuade against it. It’s a film of humongous scope and impressive scale, but also of stunted storytelling, plot consistency, emotion, and character depth and motivation. It feels simultaneously too big and unwieldy and not nearly wide-reaching enough. Its laudable imagination and ambition both prove frustratingly stunted at repeated inopportune moments. It’s not nearly as bad as you’ve heard, but it’s no underrated gem either. Its director, Duncan Jones, has unquestionable vision but perhaps not the experience with a paint kit with this many colours to put it into properly exciting motion. It’s a miss, but a tantalizing and not altogether unadmirable one.

Blizzard Entertainment’s popular MMORPG (or massively multiplayer online role-playing game) World of Warcraft might seem to be a curious video game property to adapt for the big screen, despite its pop-culture phenom status. MMORPGs are known for the immersive detail of their simulated worlds rather than for involving linear narratives or compelling characters, the backbone of cinematic storytelling. The open-ended nature of MMORPGs makes them not only non-cinematic but non-narrative; continuous play is their gaming goal, and stories, by their very nature, must end.

But Warcraft‘s screenplay, by Jones and Charles Leavitt, reaches into the game series’ first trilogy of real-time strategy games for its story. Its narrative landscape of a varied high fantasy world ruled by humans contending with an invading Horde of marauding warrior-culture orcs has roots in Warcraft: Orcs & Humans and Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness. I was an avid gamer of the latter in my mispent youth, and well remember the worldbuilding ambition hinted at in the game and further drawn out in the manual (yes, after the controls instructions), which detailed the history and nature of Azeroth, its races, its leaders, its cultures and beliefs, as well as the orc clans, their rituals, and their rivalries. Blizzard’s creative team envisioned a remarkably complex fictional universe ready to expand exponentially in the Warcraft series, which it did in the megahit WoW.

The Warcraft film can be seen as a logical extension of that expansive sword-and-sorcery universe, with a firm emphasis on seen. Jones, his design team, and ILM’s computer imagery experts craft a frequently stunning visual setting in Azeroth: the rambling human capital city of Stormwind, the vertiginous magical pinnacle of Karazhan, the rough, sandy camps of the orcs, the mountain forges of the dwarves, a floating city in the sky. Even if Jones had not made the double-edged decision to dive into his setting and story without much in the way of exposition, a location of such scope and variation as Azeroth must necessarily have been glimpsed in fascinating but fleeting snatches. Azeroth flies past when we’d rather it slowed down so that we can savour it, but Jones has a story to tell and can’t quite balance the narrative impetus with onscreen world creation nearly as well as the contemporary standard set by Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (the literary source material of which are also a key source for Warcraft‘s universe).

Warcraft‘s story has considerable potential, a dogged moral equanimity, and political implications both historical and contemporary (and a whopper of a biblical/film history homage near its conclusion), but fritters much of that away with nagging derivative choices and predictable turns. It boldly begins with a focus on the orcs, enormous, ripplingly-muscled roving war clans fleeing from a dying world. Derived (of course) from J.R.R. Tolkien‘s inhuman monster antagonists from Rings but resembling the proud, honour-bound, hypermasculine warrior culture of the Klingons in later Star Trek series, the orcs of Warcraft are miles more empathetic and honour-bound than the growling evil grotesques that pursued hobbits through six Middle Earth movies.

The focal point of that empathy is Durotan (played through digital motion-capture by Toby Kebbell), the chieftain of the noble Frostwolf clan and, when we first glimpse him in a patient, meticulously-detailed, surprisingly moving close-up shot, about to become a father. Durotan and his Frostwolves, which include his mate Draka (Anna Galvin) and his second-in-command Orgrim Doomhammer (Robert Kazinsky), are among a vanguard warband sent through a magical dimensional portal by the warlock Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) to establish a beachhead on Azeroth for the eventual en masse emigration of the orcish Horde. The portal is opened through the use of the fel, a sickly green glowing magic with the corrupting power of the One Ring that sucks up the lifeforce of beings, and Durotan distrusts Gul’dan’s reliance on it and its dangerous effects, side and otherwise.

Despite Durotan’s principled misgivings, the orcs ravage Azerothian villages and kidnap peasants to feed Gul’dan’s fel magic and open the portal to the Horde. These actions threaten the longstanding peace of Azeroth, and King Llane (Dominic Cooper) plans a military response. His army is commanded by Sir Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), a prodigious fighter and strategist whose only son (Burkely Duffield) is in harm’s way among the overmatched ranks. His comrades in the fightback against the orcs include the realm’s chief mage Guardian Medivh (an absurdly committed Ben Foster), the renegade apprentice spellcaster Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), and a half-human, half-orc captive named Garona (the charismatic Paula Patton) who mediates the two opposing poles of this equally desperate conflict.

Jones’ Warcraft film adapts a core element of the franchise’s gameplay – the player can choose to play as humans or orcs, thus making either party’s interests and cause their own within the scope of the game – into a novel tone of moral, or at least motivational, equivalence. No character is altogether good or evil in terms of the Manichean absolutes so central to high fantasy: Lothar is duty-bound to his king and country, but can be arrogant and quick to anger, and his relationship with his son is a mess of regrets (it’s also the source of much of the film’s worst writing and acting, to be honest); Durotan’s honourable nature and dedication to protecting his family, his clan, and his people’s traditions leads him towards betrayal; Medivh, like a true shaggy-fringed academic, allows his isolated intellectual curiosity to turn him from his duty to safeguard the realm with his magic; and Garona can’t make a choice of any kind without betraying either the orcs that are her natural community or the humans who have treated with much greater kindness and respect. Even Gul’dan, a twisted, grimacing sub-Voldemort type with something of the radical imam or splinter Christian cult leader about him, a creature consumed by dark magic and the closest thing Warcraft has to a straight-up villain, is also the unquestionable saviour of the orcish people (although their world may have also been consumed by his dark magic, so they shouldn’t be too quick to thank him).

Indeed, by virtue of both the sturdier orc-related writing and character arcs and the impressively emotionally subtle mo-cap acting work, the orcs (or at least Durotan and his circle) are in many ways the more sympathetic figures in the film. This is despite their structural role in the plot as monstrous, violent refugee invaders (a literal Horde) with an unfamiliar culture swarming over a peaceable and vaguely multiracial nation and literally siphoning its lifeforce. There’s a nasty Trumpian xenophobic fantasy about the dangers of immigration lurking not very far beneath the surface of Warcraft, making it this summer’s second blockbuster based on a video game to venture into such waters.

To its credit, Warcraft doesn’t indulge these nativist undertones, largely through the qualms that sympathetic orcs like Durotan and Garona have about Gul’dan’s plans and the corrupting fel. But like the game, the film relies on and thrives on the conflict between man and orc (Jones’ battle sequences are often spectacular, though sometimes numinously staged) and entertains no serious possibility of resolution of the impasse by any means but arms. Jones can be meticulous and careful about some details (many of them of a technical or design nature), but his hand is less steady on the tiller of moral, political, or thematic matters, not to mention the numerous plot holes large enough to walk a hulking orc through.

Despite the intractable differences and the natural conflict pre-determined by the core scenario put in place in game and movie, orcs and humans work their way towards similar end points by the film’s conclusion. Both sides in what we are told in the opening moments to be an interminable war celebrate the sacrifices of selfless heroes that galvanize their respective peoples in the defence of their cultural traditions with the persuasive force of compelling propaganda. Like the games, Warcraft the film requires humans and orcs to be at odds indefinitely in order to function, and this first film of what is clearly hoped to be a screen franchise maintains a course towards continuity of conflict. Still, Warcraft merits praise and criticism, admiration and ridicule in differing facets and very nearly in equal measure. Its allegiances to well-crafted epic adventure and B-level pulp fantasy tropes mirror those that it intends its audience to hold towards its warring but intelligibly motivated races. The balance is never perfect, but Duncan Jones’ flawed but involving sword-and-sorcery blockbuster experiment suggests that balance isn’t always everything.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. June 29, 2016 at 11:18 pm

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