Overview: Orcs and humans come to blows over a land both wish to call home. Universal Pictures; 2016; PG-13; 123 Minutes.
The World of Warcraft: The source material in Warcraft makes The Silmarillion look like How to Mythology for Dummies. It covers thousands of generations, races, and fabric-reality-tearing magical logistics with an empathetic approach to fantasy only rivaled by A Song of Ice and Fire and Lord of the Rings. We had to quietly know the movie adaptation wasn’t going to perfectly ease general audiences toward the lore, but boy, does it get close. It takes a specific type of devotion to fully submerge oneself into a fantasy work of this scope, particularly given the stigma toward the genre. Add that to the earned skepticism against video game movies, and you realize it’s not just a miracle the movie works, it’s a testament to Jones as a director.
Warcraft is interested in its story and stakes. With a floating city in the clouds, Ben Foster casually sculpting a golem, and a Murloc gargle casually playing over an establishing shot, Director Duncan Jones sets his aesthetic terms and displays his love of the series early. Where he stumbles is the manner of proper introductions to the world of Azeroth, lush with all sorts of fantasy tropes familiar to even the most casual fans of the genre. It’s a case of less being more but then not enough when the more comes into play.
The editing of mastermind Paul Hirsch (you have seen at least one of his very well edited movies) and narrative pacing bog down stretches in the first half of the film when it should be humming along smoothly. The opening act of the film sings certain segments specifically as fan service. The lack of character drama on the human half of the story might leave non-fans lost in the fantasy kerfuffle. At just two hours (a short runtime for a film of epic fantasy scope, by today’s terms) Warcraft could have benefited from more time spent in the Alliance camp, or perhaps, it could have used Paula Patton’s Garona as our entry point between the two factions. But, by the end, it all comes together in a wonderful mosaic of tragedy and honor and Jones’ passion guides us through the rough waters.
Strength and Honor: The orcs are brawny and meaty, with tusks and variations of skin palettes allowing them to breathe a specific attitude that is rare for CGI creations. The heroes and villains on the side of the Horde are not meant to be uniformly cheered or hated; they are fully realized humanoids. Durotan in particular marks another standout motion capture performance from Toby Kebbell. Durotan carries the emotional heft of the film and, along with his wife Draka, the thematic nucleus of the movie.
Through juxtaposing characterizations of the factions we get a brisk, clean understanding of the conflict – right before it gets too heavy in its own lore. Warcraft opens with a humanizing view of the Horde, establishing them as complex, feeling creatures even as their burly flesh and bones comprise a cartoonish symmetry. Their world is dying with the only chance of survival to head into Azeroth, the world where the humans are located. Sure, they’re led by the power hungry Orc warloc/warlord Gul’Dan, but the point still stands.
The humans are introduced through Lothar, a dashing Travis Fimmel set in an Aragorn-type role of dashing hero. We first see him in a giant iron forge (Yeah, I squealed, so what?) being shown a new invention called a “boom-stick.” It’s their version of a gun, doubling as a reference to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead. On the surface it’s a cutesy call back to the man who was once pegged to direct the film half a decade ago, but it also functionally provides a disturbing contrast to the opposing cultures. Orcs, while they pride themselves on honor and battle, can be a beautiful people. Humans, even with their regal nature and current era of peace, haven’t done much to break away from the cycle of war.
Warcraft is not only a complex, fair observation of both sides of a conflict but a narrative study in power and legacy.
All Your Base Are Belong To Us: The climax of the film leaves the world in a unique place for a blockbuster. It isn’t directly sequel-baiting (although it certainly could be seen as such) but instead focuses on the vast consequences of war and trauma inflicted upon Azeroth’s denizens as a faint glimmers of hope shine through.
Warcraft is ambitious. It could have used at least an extra half hour of scenes expanding the human character motivations to drive home the rambunctious third act, but, because of early critical mumbles and justifiably skeptical expectations, it’s one of the best surprises of the year.
Overview: The world of Warcraft is ever-expansive, never narrowing its worldview or slowing on its weirdness to allow general audiences to keep up. I don’t know if the future holds any Warcraft sequels how Jones might accomplish these gigantic feats, but I’ll be damned if I’m not there opening day to watch them.