For the Horde!
Video games tend to not fare well in the translation to live action film. Generally, they all have been varying degrees of terrible. Outside of my own love (that even I don’t understand) for the original Mortal Kombat, every single live action video game adaptation has fallen flat. Yet many had hoped that Warcraft would break the trend. With a talent like Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code) helming the film, I had high expectations. So, is Warcraft the film to breakout from its video game trappings, and give us definitive proof that video game movies can be good?
And my answer is: Sorta?
Warcraft is based on Blizzard’s supremely popular video game franchise, and while many think it’s an adaptation of the widely known World of Warcraft, it is actually an adaptation of the original real time strategy game from the 90s. It tells the story of the first confrontation between the orcs and humans of the fantasy world known as Azeroth. The orcs’ world is dying, and under the rule of an evil orc warlock Gul’dan (Daniel Wu), the orcs unite and invade Azeroth, coming to blows the human kingdom of Stormwind.
Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel) leads the charge against the orcish horde with the help of the magical guardian Medivh (Ben Foster), and Khadgar(Ben Schnetzer) – a young mage in training. Growing increasingly suspicious of Gul’dan’s rule, Durotan (Tobey Kebbell), his pregnant wife Draka (Anna Galvin), and best friend Orgimm Doomhammer (Robert Kazinsky) try and find a way to make peace with the human kingdom.
The film smartly opens with the orc horde, giving us a small moment with Durotan and Draka talking with each other in bed. It’s a bit odd at first, seeing these two giant CGI behemoths engage in pillow talk. For a moment I thought I was going to spend the entire two hour run time in the depressions of the uncanny valley, but I quickly warmed to these orc characters. I found myself heavily invested in their side of the story, especially Durotan, more so than the human side of the conflict. They felt more fully realized as characters, and somehow had more humanity to them than the humans themselves!
What really sells the believability of the orcs is the groundbreaking CGI that is used for them. Like I mentioned earlier, it takes a second to get used to, but once I had I was in awe of the subtle details and emotions the orcs were able to express. They are obviously CGI, but I was able to immerse myself and forget that whenever the film focused on the orcs. However, once they were on screen with humans it became a little more difficult.
It’s not that it really diminished the orcs in anyway, it just made it all the more obvious that I was watching these hulking CGI creatures face off against the minuscule humans. And when they do face off, boy is it entertaining. Jones proves himself to be greatly talented at directing action. Whenever the two factions come to blows, you feel each and every hit – every sword slash, every hammer smash, every sickening bone crunch. There is so much weight and impact to the action scenes, and nothing is lost in the chaotic clashes that Jones crafts. It would have been easy for the battle scenes to turn into CGI cluster-fuck a la Battle of the Five Armies, but Jones is able to retain battlefield coherence among the carnage.
What I appreciated about this film was the way it gave equal focus to both sides of the conflict. This isn’t like Lord of the Rings where you have your obvious good humans/elves/dwarves and evil orcs. Warcraft is more nuanced in this regarded, painting a more morally gray conflict. Both factions have their own strengths and weaknesses, and you can understand both of their perspectives. While many of the other plot points in the film feel decisively rushed through, Jones succeeded in telling a war story from both sides.
While I didn’t hate the humans in this film, they weren’t near as engaging as the orcs. Lothar is definitely Warcraft’s attempt at an Aragorn type of character, but he is nowhere near developed enough to have as much of an effect. Fimmel plays him with a sort of Han Solo like swagger that made his character enjoyable, but I felt I never really got to know him. Foster was excellent as usual as Medivh, though I must admit I was a little confused with what exactly was going on with his character in the final act. Dominic Cooper does a fine job as the king of Stormwind, but his performance is nothing to write home about.
My main complaint with the humans lies mainly with the Khadgar, or more accurately, Schnetzer’s portrayal of the character. He stuck out like a sore thumb and seemed out of place, like he had wandered out of LARP-ing session onto the set of a major motion picture. He was so supremely distracting, and it was disappointing how much screen time he took up.
Paula Patton plays the half-orc Garona, and while I enjoyed her character and performance, her story line was so under cooked that it lost a lot of its impact. And that’s where the film’s biggest problems arise: the story is so insanely rushed.
There is no real defined “main” character in the film, instead the film opts to act as an ensemble piece with four main leads in Lothar, Durotan, Khadgar, and Garona. But with a surprisingly short two hour run time, none of their story lines are ever given time to breathe. We are so quickly sped through major plot point to plot point that it’s very easy to get lost in the sprawling story. The forty minutes that Jones had to cut from the film were really noticed, as the film felt like it was missing much of its connective tissue between many scenes.The relationship between Lothar and Garona is unearned, and Lothar’s relationship with his son definitely needed to be expanded upon. The film experiences a lot of chopping editing, and many scenes seem to end a few seconds shorter than they should.
The problem is Jones tries to achieve too much with one film. He tries to set up a new (to non-gamers) fantasy world, give two sides of a major conflict equal attention, tell four different main characters stories, all while leaving various story threads to be picked up in sequels. Jones’ love for this world can be felt in the film, and I appreciate what he set out to accomplish, he just falls a little short of what he was trying to do. Still, it’s an enjoyable ride, and a step up for video game films. If the film is successful enough for a sequel, I look forward to returning to Azeroth.