2016 has been considered the make-or-break year for films based on video games. The key difference between the ones this year and previous years being that the game studios have begun to take more creative control as opposed to taking a back seat and selling the rights. Ratchet and Clank as well as The Angry Birds Movie has come and gone with little fanfare, though Angry Birds did leave a solid mark at the box office. However, the ones that have everyone’s’ attention is Warcraft and Assassin’s Creed. Both have the game developers heavily involved and both are helmed by acclaimed filmmakers in an extra attempt at legitimizing the often mocked subgenre. One of the first movies to really kick off the summer season is Warcraft and it is co-written and directed by Duncan Jones of Moon and Source Code fame.
Warcraft is a tough film to really talk about for me. Not because I was a huge fan of the game (I only played World of Warcraft for a couple months and quit), but because it really isn’t a good movie. It’s messy, all over the place, incoherent and overwhelming. But I kind of liked it. Now, I can’t defend it as a good movie, I can only offer my own perspective and what made me click with the film and why.
The thing Warcraft reminded me of most as I was watching it were films in the vein of Heaven’s Gate and Dune. Both films are ambitious projects helmed by visionary directors who had to deal with various problems inherent to the system of filmmaking at that time resulting in films that had little appeal to anyone and suffered for it. A more recent example that came to mind was Jupiter Ascending, another ambitious failure. As bad as some of the word of mouth is, and as admittedly bad many elements of Warcraft is, I think this is another one of those bad movies that could only be made by an otherwise great filmmaker, and to passively dismiss it as worthless garbage is unfair.
Warcraft is a film that wants to involve itself with big ideas, relevant ideas. It’s a story (one of the stories, at least) is about a refugee, Durotan (Toby Kebbell). He is an orc and their world is dying, forcing them all to move to the human world. He finds himself at odds with the orc’s moral code of honor, he questions what that honor means, especially as their leader, Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) continues to take increasingly violent methods in taking over the land. He realizes that if they are to survive, they have to evolve, they have to be able to work with the humans, if for any other reason than to ensure the safety of his newborn son. To say there aren’t at least some vague parallels to what is currently happening with the European immigration crisis would be crazy.
But then again, that is ultimately just one of the many stories that Duncan Jones and his co-writer, Charles Leavitt, bring to the big screen. Another character is Lothar (Travis Fimmel), a celebrated commander who finds himself emotionally overwhelmed in balancing his work for the protection of the kingdom as well as his own son training to be a warrior, Callan (Burkely Duffield). There is even one about a young, gifted mage, Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) and his complicated relationship with his mentor, Medivh (Ben Foster).
Oh, and there’s also this half-human, half-orc hybrid, Garona (Paula Patton), and she does some stuff.
So, yes, this movie is overstuffed, it’s full of characters and the dialogue (except for a couple scenes) is basically wall-to-wall exposition. Yet, somehow, it still feels rushed. Every other scene feels like the stopped five minutes before it was supposed to end. You don’t even have to know that 45 minutes of the film were cut to realize that the movie has been hacked to death. I have to believe that was the studio’s call since I refuse to believe Paul Hirsch would deliver such a sloppily edited product. It’s glaringly obvious and it really screws up the pacing. And despite the film wanting to address so many relevant and relatable themes of loyalty, finding a home, honor, legacy, and fatherhood, it doesn’t resonate because it never allows the characters to develop along with those themes. There’s a dissonance that prevents it from getting an emotional response out of the audience that isn’t at all familiar with the source material, and it’s a shame considering that it is actively trying to elevate itself above the standard blockbuster.
The only times when the film comes close to actually working is when it’s focusing exclusively on the orcs. Not only are the VFX something else, but the motion capture performances are top notch, Toby Kebbell being the highlight of the film. It’s really next level stuff and it’s a shame considering the humans are nowhere near as compelling. It’s not that everyone that hasn’t gone through some rendering is bad, but the human cast feels oddly lost and directionless. It’s as if they aren’t quite sure what approach to go with, so some are hammy, some are understated, Travis Fimmel is trying to do this whole Harrison Ford swagger, if Harrison Ford had a few drinks before someone yelled, “Action!” I kinda dug him because of that, but it was for entirely superficial reasons. I had to keep the Warcraft IMDb page opened in a separate tab as I write this review simply because I cannot recall anyone’s names, and this is despite the fact that everyone in the movie repeats each other’s’ names at least twice in every scene.
One thing I appreciate was the sort of juxtaposition of having such humanistic undercurrents while also dealing with an aesthetic that is so bizarre and cartoonish. The film perfectly captures the look of the game, and it littered with detail and history. And after recently coming off a film like X-Men: Apocalypse, a comic book movie that is the ninth installment of its franchise, yet is still shows signs of utter shame at what it is and where its roots are, completely afraid to go ridiculous thinking that a weird film can’t resonate. And while Warcraft certainly doesn’t work, it is totally confident in itself and in its world. It isn’t afraid of the fact that it is presenting orcs with the strangest body proportions and people wearingly unnecessarily oversized armor. And it totally believes in itself enough to present all this while also dealing with dark and heavy themes.
And that leads me to another thing. Warcraft is sincere. There is not a cynical bone in this movie’s body. Yes, I’m sure Blizzard Entertainment had their hands all over this, I’m sure they loomed over Duncan Jones throughout the whole production. However, despite that, nothing in the film feels like it is talking down to its audience, nothing feels like it was added because “that’s what appeals to certain demographics” or “this is what our focus groups responded well to.” It embraces the weird and the silliness inherent to the material and treats it with genuine respect. It goes big and doesn’t look back. And the final act of this film is a doozy. They do things in the final act of Warcraft that most blockbusters would never dare to do. The stakes felt real, characters find themselves in morally questionable ground, there are about as much victories as there are losses, and it doesn’t make it clear how you should feel. Yes, the execution leaves much to be desired, but it’s so rare to see a film go so boldly with these moments in the last half hour that the mere attempt at it was a breath of fresh air to me.
In the vast spectrum of video game movies, I don’t know exactly where I would put Warcraft, but it’s mostly because it feels like an entirely different beast than most. Unlike most video game adaptations, Warcraft is the first one that feels like it may be a little too in love with the source material. However, like I said, I’m well aware of its many issues; that it’s a mess, that it doesn’t work and that it doesn’t resonate. It is a failure, but I argue it’s an interesting one, a weirdly unique film that embraces the bold and odd in its source material where I feel most blockbusters would rather restrain and play safe. Duncan Jones, in having to deal with a project this massive in size and scope – a daunting task for any director, has managed to make something that still showcases his own personal skills and idiosyncrasies as a storyteller, even if it only truly comes to the forefront in very, very small doses. I find films like these fascinating, and I get that for most average moviegoers, this film is dead on arrival, but it’s why, despite not being good, I still admire Warcraft, I have respect for it, I appreciate its ambitions. As someone who was really rooting for it, I wish it could’ve been better, and I certainly hope that the 45 minutes that were edited out will be available in a future Director’s Cut, but I’ll happily take this over any stale, soft, test-screened-to-death feature. 50/100