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Catching Up on 2016: Josh Reviews Warcraft

May 24th, 2017
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I have no attachment to or even any knowledge of the game Warcraft.  I have never played the game, in any of its incarnations.  But I was interested in the film version because of the involvement of Duncan Jones at the helm.  Mr. Jones directed Moon, a fantastic tiny-budget sci-fi film from 2009 starring Sam Rockwell.  That film made me a forever fan of Mr. Jones, and I was curious to see how he’d interpret the massive game canvas of Warcraft.

Warcraft.cropped

The film tells the origin of a conflict between humans and Orcs on the fantasy world of Azeroth.  As the film opens, we follow Orc clan-leader Durotan and his pregnant mate Draka as they, and other Orc warriors, flee their dying world.  Their powerful leader Gul’dan uses his magic to transport the Orc horde from their dying world to the lush Azeroth.  There they face that world’s protectors, including King Wrynn (Dominic Cooper), Protector Medivh (Ben Foster), the warrior Lothar (Travis Fimmel), and the young mage Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer).  But not all Orcs are evil and not all humans have Azeroth’s best interests at heart.

This is a tough film to unpack. I love the enormous ambition on display in every frame.  This film wants to be a spectacular fantasy epic.  It is stuffed full of characters and places and creatures, all of whom have complicated names and back-stories.  The look of the film is full-on fantasy epic, with elaborate costumes and props and sets and settings, many of which are enhanced by extensive CGI effects.  There are enormous vistas and expansive CGI fantasy cities and locations.  There are incredible creatures and and lots of magical super-powers.

It’s all, as I just commented, incredibly impressive in the scope of its ambition.  Unfortunately, I can’t say that the film works at all.  I don’t have any pre-existing knowledge of Warcraft, the characters or backstory.  I am someone who loves sci-fi and fantasy, and my eyes don’t glaze over when it comes to crazy names and fantasy settings.  But this movie overwhelmed me.  It was all “too much of a muchness” (to quite the great Ira Steven Behr, one of the main writers behind the best seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine).  There were just too many characters, too many locations, too many hard-to-say and harder-to-remember long, very fantasy-sounding names.  Far too much was thrown at the audience far too fast, without giving us strong enough characters to be able to hold onto and invest in.

This film’s problems emphasize for me the successful way Peter Jackson launched his Lord of the Rings trilogy.  That film is an enormous fantasy canvas, stuffed full of crazy fantasy characters and settings and situations.  But the first film starts small, focusing on Frodo and his friends, and only gradually does the story expand to the enormous fantasy epic it would become.  That would have been an approach that would have served Warcraft well.

Mr. Jones has assembled an extraordinary cast.  These were the right people to have brought this story to life.  Unfortunately, they are almost all lost within the spectacle, buried under the costumes and the sets and the crazy names.  Ben Foster is an extraordinary actor, just look at the strong work he did in Hell or High Water.  But he becomes a fairly one-dimensional villain here as the twisted magician Medivh.  (He does, though, play one of the only characters whose name I could remember at the end, without having to look it up, because of how many times in the movie other characters yelled out “Medivh!”)  Dominic Cooper has been terrific as Howard Stark in Captain America: The First Avenger and then again in the Agent Carter series.  But his charm and crackling good humor is mostly buried here as the noble, yet one-dimensional, king Wrynn.  Ruth Negga, so spectacular in Loving, plays the Queen, but I can’t really tell you anything more about her other than that she seems nice, because the movie doesn’t let us know anything more than that.  (An aside: I haven’t yet watched the first season of Preacher, but it’s funny to me that Mr. Cooper and Ms. Negga, who are the lead characters on that show, play a married King and Queen here in this film!)  Travis Fimmel is supposed to be the heroic lead as the warrior Lothar, and boy does he try, but the movie just doesn’t give him much of a character to play.  He winds up as Aragorn-lite.  Paula Patton was one of the best things about Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, and like Mr. Fimmel she truly gives her all to this film, playing the half-breed warrior-woman Garona Halforcen (thank you wikipedia).  But like all of the characters, she’s just not given enough depth to allow the audience to invest in her or care too much about what happens to her.  I could go on.

The best thing about the film are the Orcs, brought to life through incredible CGI and mo-cap technology.  The Orcs are phenomenal.  Yes, the character designs for the Orcs are ridiculous, but I believe those designs originate from the game, so I can’t fully blame Mr. Jones and his team for that.  Looking past that, it’s astounding how almost photo-realistic the Orcs are.  You truly believe these CGI creatures are real, and a strong voice cast brings the Orc characters to life.  Toby Kebbell, so magnificent in a previous mo-cap role as Koba in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, is great as the main Orc, Durotan.  Anna Galvin plays Durotan’s mate, Draka; Robert Kazinsky plays Durotan’s right-hand Orc Orgrim Doomhammer (oy, these names!); the always-amazing Clancy Brown plays the Orc chief Blackhand; and Daniel Wu voices the villainous Orc magician Gul’dan.  They’re all great, and succeed in creating characters that are much more memorable than any of the humans.

What’s weird about Warcraft is that, when one gets to the end of the movie, it feels like all of this has just been set-up for future stories.  I hate the modern trend of designing movies to be just the first chapter of a trilogy or an extended franchise of films.  A movie MUST, I repeat, MUST, succeed on its own as a complete story.  I’m not sure if this is because of all the story-telling and world-building that has already been done by the games, but it felt to me that the true meat of the Warcraft story was left untold by this film, and that’s disappointing.  Also, what was the deal with that opening sequence of an Orc and a human fighting in a desert?  The movie never comes back to that!!  Was that meant to take place in the future, after many more years of Orc-versus-human warfare?  I was left scratching my head.  Doing some looking around on-line, I found that a version of that sequence was used as a very early concept trailer for the film, from way back in 2013.  But how does it fit into the rest of the movie??  It’s very curious to have that sequence in the film and never explain it.

I feel bad that I don’t like Warcraft!  This is a movie that cost a lot of money to make, and that, clearly, hundreds of people worked so hard on in front of and behind the camera.  This movie is not a cynical cash-grab or formulaic franchise film.  And yet, it just doesn’t work.  There were bits and pieces that I enjoyed, a character moment here, a visual effects sequence there.  But it doesn’t hold together.  Duncan Jones and his co-workers took a mighty swing at this one, but unfortunately, it’s a swing and a miss.

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