When Warcraft (then World of Warcraft) was first announced with Sam Raimi directing, I thought that was pretty perfect. Raimi has a deft touch for handling things that are slightly absurd. His almost tongue-in-cheek direction would fit nicely with some high fantasy.
Then he left and Duncan Jones came in, and my brain got confused, but also intrigued. Jones, best known for Moon, wasn’t a big blockbuster director, though he clearly knows how to imbue genre films with something more than you’d expect. Things were definitely looking interesting.
They didn’t turn out that way.
Director: Duncan Jones
Release Date: June 8, 2016
I will say off the bat that I have not been involved in the Warcraft universe in many years, and even then only with the RTS games, but I’m assuming that there’s a very in depth, thought out and complicated world in place by now. It may help the film a lot if you know about this world, but coming from an outsider’s eyes the world of Warcraft (sorry) feels hollow and cliche. Maybe that’s because the game’s basis was originally much the same, but however the game’s world has evolved the movie can’t capture it, and it’s commitment to trying to do that may be it’s greatest weakness.
We open on some impressively done CGI and motion capture orcs as we’re introduced to Durotan (Toby Kebell), a chieftain who has reservations about the obviously-evil Gul-dan’s plan to use a an evil green magic gate to invade the human world as the orc’s world is dying. Evil plan executed, a small team of elite orc warriors, some corrupted by said evil green magic, enter the human world and begin to build a new gate so as to open a path for the rest of the orcs. The humans (and other Alliance creatures) quickly realize they’re being attacked and call upon powerful magic being The Guardian (Ben Foster) to help protect them. Things are amiss, however, and the battle rages on with knight Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), magic guy Llane Wryne and sexy orc hybrid Garona (Paula Patton) taking the lead in orc killing.
The overarching premise is that there are good orcs out there. Durotan attempts to broker a peace with the humans as he realizes that Gul-dan’s magic is evil and is what caused the death in the orc home world. It’s clear this theme of telling both sides of a war is what Jones really wanted to do with the film, and at points he almost succeeds. There’s a very interesting Game of Thrones political fantasy buried deep in Warcraft, but it never gets the chance to see the light of day.
Warcraft has a pretty slavish dedication to the look and feel of the games, and that does it no favors. Instead of the awe-inspiring vistas of The Lord of the Rings the overall look of the film feels cheap. Armor and costume design feel like they were pulled out of a high-schooler’s math class doodles, which, in fairness, most likely would be influenced by World of Warcraft. Sets are often small and fake looking and overall it just feels very cheap, like we’re watching something out of early 00s SyFy. You’ve seen almost all of this before and done better.
It’s especially odd because for the most part the orc stuff is absolutely fantastic. Character design, animation and setting all feel fresh and interesting. The motion capture and CGI technology for the orcs is spot on, though can sometimes hit the uncanny valley really, really hard. When that combines with the plastic-looking human world the entire affair feels like a shell of a fantasy world: empty except for pretty pictures and ideas too big to be executed well.
The screenplay is unfortunately unbalanced as well. At points it actually shines, and you can see Jones’ skills with handling genre material with a deft touch. The next moment its as clunky as as the massive orcs who are speaking it. Characters and their motivations get picked up and dropped as easily as the plethora of human knights thrown about by orcs. Massive plot points are glazed over and world creation often feels as if it was forgotten. Part of this stems from the film seeming to assume that we all have a basic foundation in Warcraft lore and part of it stems from the fact that sequels are blatantly already in the works. The story starts to stretch thin by the end and the conclusion really stops making much sense. It is far from the worst fantasy story ever put to screen by miles, but it never rings with the emotional power of truly great fantasy film making.
Jones does his best with his direction. It’s easy to get into the action as he weaves together some impressive battle sequences, even using some top down aerial shots to reflect Warcraft‘s RTS roots. He actually does some really cool stuff that makes the film fun to watch even when it’s not working as well as it could. It’s just another way that glimpses of what the movie could be break out before being buried under the hollowness of it all.
Have I used the term hollow enough? Warcraft isn’t really a bad movie, it’s a hollow one. It’s surprisingly well executed visually at times, but there’s nothing behind the pretty pictures. Its story is actually intriguing, but it never feels important. Its characters have depth to them, but it’s never shown. Its not a mess because there is nothing to spill. The world of Warcraft (sorry, again) is a big, pretty, empty shell.