While I get that any film based on outside source material should do what it can to play well to the fans of said material, in order to be a work that actually draws in mass audiences, it has to appeal to all—or at least as many people as possible—even those who have never been exposed to the source material. In the case of WARCRAFT, the original is a video game series from Blizzard Entertainment that I’ve never laid eyes on, although I’ve certainly heard about it and know plenty of people who have played it over the years.
My immediate thought after seeing the film was that I was legitimately fascinated that the creators (of game and film) effectively borrow elements from all manner of fantasy—from King Arthur to “The Lord of the Rings” to STARGATE—and smash them together to create a new story. I actually don’t have any issues with this approach, since so much of fantasy is derived from other sources. In many ways, watching WARCRAFT reminded me of my time discovering ’80s fantasy films that were low on budget and not exactly front loaded with original ideas, but they still found ways to be fun and playful. If I had one overriding complaint about this film, it’s that it takes itself so damn seriously that it forgets how damn silly some aspects of it can get.
WARCRAFT begins on two worlds: one that includes humans, dwarves, elves and Guardians (which are basically just wizards), and another that is a dying world where Orcs live, including Durotan (a motion-capture creation, with Toby Kebbell at its core), an Orc who is tired of the evil-trending turns of the predominant force in his world, a warlock named Gul’dan (Daniel Wu), who is supported and protected by a war chief named Blackhand (Clancy Brown). Since the Orcs’ world is dying, Gul’dan has devised a plan that opens up a portal between the Orc world and Azeroth, which they plan on inhabiting and taking, killing off the current population in the process, since the “souls” of living creatures are needed to open the portal in the first place.
Dominic Cooper plays the realm’s king, Llane Wrynn, with Lady Taria (Ruth Negga) as his queen. (Fans of the new AMC series “Preacher” should get a kick out of those casting choices.) As he learns of the Orcs’ plan (after several areas of Azeroth have already been taken over), he enlists the help of his greatest warrior Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel of the series “Vikings” but also recently seen in MAGGIE’S PLAN) and the most powerful Guardian, Medivh (Ben Foster). Also in the mix is a Guardian in-training Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer from PRIDE), as well as arguably the film’s most interesting character Garner (a half-orc, half-human woman, played by Paula Patton), whose allegiances are mixed and questioned frequently by both sides.
And if all of those names and character descriptions are already making your head spin, then perhaps WARCRAFT isn’t for you. But for those inclined to give fantasy films a shot, you might find yourself giving this one a fair shot. There are messages woven into the many stories of WARCRAFT about heroism, survival, fathers and sons, and what it means to be loyal to a people rather than a leader. Both sides suffer heavy losses, and it becomes clear at a certain point that the makers of this film see this brand going far beyond just one movie (good luck with that).
The very capable director Duncan Jones (MOON, SOURCE CODE) has moved far beyond his far more intimate science fiction tales to full-on world building, with varying degrees of success. I love the detail in the individual orc character designs, from costumes to body piercings to the varied way their tusks poke forth from their mouths. I was less impressed with the various robes and armor of the Azeroth realm, which felt more like leftover costumes from every movie to ever feature a castle in the last 50 years. The production design is hit and miss as well, and even the best set work doesn’t stand out. I realize that a considerable amount of the film is artificial to some degree, but that’s no excuse for shoddy craftsmanship.
I suppose the biggest issues when you borrow so heavily from better-known and better-written sources is that you have to find ways to make your hybrid creative in different ways, and to me the greatest leap WARCRAFT makes is allowing some of the Orcs to be rational creatures, who don’t immediately want to jump into battle. The scenes of uneasy peace interrupted by spies and other Orcs who only want to destroy, are some of the more interesting in the film. Durotan and Lothar are the most fully rounded characters of the bunch, and that’s done by design since they both have family members whose lives need protecting—Durotan has just had a baby Orc son, while Lothar’s grown son is on the verge of becoming a mighty warrior himself, which also makes him a target (screenwriters Jones and Charles Leavitt don’t really offer up many surprises).
WARCRAFT isn’t the disaster early reviews would have you believe. From a purely technical standpoint, the film is fascinating viewing, but special effects and creature design only go so far. I could actually see places in the story where I wish the pacing was slowed somewhat just so we could spend a few extra moments with some of the more underdeveloped characters. At various points during the film, the pacing was so breakneck I was afraid to blink. And since I was trying desperately to keep all the names, locations and various alliances straight, a rapid trip through the story is a very bad thing.
As much as I didn’t loathe this film, I also wasn’t thinking about it an hour after I saw it, which might be the greatest indicator that something substantive is missing. Younger viewers might get more out of this than I did, but WARCRAFT features decapitations and head squishing (mostly of Orcs, but still…), so you might want to gauge your child’s tolerance for violence. This one mostly works as a decidedly average fantasy tale, but it’s not especially good and it’s certainly not essential viewing.