Movie review: “Warcraft” (2016)

warcraft

“Sounds like a trap.”

“It is not.”

“Could be.”

“It is not.”

“Could be.”

“It is not.”

Who knew orcs had such soulful, expressive eyes? That, after a touch over two hours of simultaneously bland but colorful cartoon CGI carnage, was my main takeaway from Warcraft, the would-be flagship of an undeniably ambitious, already likely doomed new Sword & Sorcery franchise that unfortunately comes years, if not decades – which would predate its source material – too late to avoid standing out from today’s blockbuster marketplace in exactly the wrong way. The original Warcraft trilogy, a trailblazing and obscenely popular video game series on whose first volume – Orcs & Humans – this film is ostensibly based, in many ways seems tailor-made for the big screen, relating the ever-expanding tale of a medieval, steroidal Tolkein-esque fantasy realm whose hard-won peace is torn apart, for and by the first of many times and culprits, by the sudden arrival of vicious alien invaders bent on conquest. Long rumored and perhaps longer in development, the prospect of a Warcraft adaptation tantalized some gamers while scandalizing others, and the snarkiest critics among us awaited its arrival with unseemly bated breath. The end result, which features some stunning visuals but a troubling lack of overall vision, and smoothly, dutifully, almost perfunctorily, checks every fantasy trope – many of which its source material imprinted onto an entire gaming generation well before Peter Jackson set foot in Middle Earth – off an embarrassingly long list, is neither the triumph its fans hoped for nor the tire fire its detractors giddily forecast. If we are to treat their contributions like scoring in Olympic competition, thus discarding the highest and lowest, it is left to the moviegoing masses with no skin in the game to judge, likely rendering this particular grade an “incomplete.” I sincerely doubt they bothered making the trip.

warcraft posterThe movie version of Warcraft, hopefully subtitled The Beginning on its imdb page, exists at the calamitous intersection of two very specific sorts of cinematic endeavors that, even on their own, rarely go very well: the live action video game adaptation, and the overt “fan service” piece. Hollywood, of course, is currently running the most desperate and far-reaching blood drive in its history, raiding and co-opting known properties – ANY known properties – at a frankly lunatic pace, whether or not any of them objectively might have the makings of an actual movie. In days of yore, successful movies necessarily begat video game adaptations, a fact that’s never really changed. It’s just that, in the interim, fans learned from repeated disappointment to temper their expectations. Now the circle has neatly, sneakily closed, and it is video game franchises that are being increasingly counted upon to spawn successful movies, though just because video games at their best can be breathtakingly cinematic doesn’t inherently mean their adaptations will even be tolerable cinema. Certainly, nobody knew, above name recognition and presumed baseline competence, quite what the hell to expect from Battleship a few summers ago, or from this year’s otherwise inexplicable Angry Birds adaptation, and the tens of tens that flocked to see them in the theater, I’m sure, received for their troubles honest-to-goodness time-killers featuring armored boats and disgruntled birds respectively. Warcraft is another animal entirely – the comparison alone is a brazen insult – one that takes place in a vibrant, fully formed world, and draws from a wealth of dense, carefully considered (and obsessed over) history and mythology. No amount of lip service or half measures would be sufficient to win over the audience Warcraft is courting, and, to their credit, the filmmakers, led by director Duncan Jones, seem to realize this. Their efforts are unimpeachably earnest, and, unfortunately, insufficient.

From another world, through a towering interdimensional gate powered by the forfeit via blood magic of innocent lives by the cageful, streams the vast Orcan Horde, great, toothy, anthropomorphic blue and/or green monsters, each massive in stature, with the strength of a bull elephant, and practically frothing at the mouth in single-minded pursuit of battle. These orcs, a staple of certain strains of fantasy literature since Tolkein first introduced them, are the Klingons of Warcraft‘s world of Azeroth, an aggressive, unapologetically martial race operating under deeply ingrained governing principles regarding strength, honor, and the glory of warfare. Fully rendered CGI and vividly imagined, these creatures seem genetically engineered to strike terror into opposing forces, with the notable exception of the aforementioned Durotan, sort of the Dr. Phil of Orgrimmar, who worries his proud Blackrock clan of orcs are losing their way, worries over the outsized influence on his comrades of megalomaniacal Warchief Blackhand, and the corrupting Fel magic he wields, worries about the welfare of his incredibly pregnant wife – who he naturally takes along on intra-planetary campaign, because bed rest is for sissies – and adorable (for a moppet that could probably devour a human hand in one bite) newborn son. Though perhaps understandable from a narrative standpoint, it still feels counterintuitive to present the whole of Orc-dom as ravenous, walking weapons* yet make their audience surrogate a hand-wringing, almost distractingly conflicted, new dad. At an economical two hours flat, Warcraft doesn’t have time to mess around. The focus on Durotan has the interesting effect of imparting humanity onto the patently non-human, but also overloads the scales with melodrama before the film has had much chance to establish its action bona fides, a tonal imbalance from which it never quite recovers.

*They remind me, honestly, in their loving visual characterization and over the top customization, of some of the homicidal desert vehicles in “Mad Max: Fury Road” made flesh. I was most taken with the rival chieftain who wears two complete companion ribcages and spinal columns fused together as a makeshift cape. “Warcraft” has a lot of video game iconography from which to draw inspiration, of course. Some – not most, but some – of its choices are, indeed, pretty sharp.

As Durotan, expressive English journeyman Toby Kebbell – burying any trace of accent beneath a prevailing, theater-rattling growl – turns in far and away the film’s best, most memorable performance, vocal or otherwise, though his role is so overwritten and lingered upon that it would be a major concern if he didn’t. Veteran character actor Clancy Brown roars his way to second place by embracing aurally the film’s visual portrayal of the warlock Blackhand as the shriveled, snarling, hunchbacked Orcan embodiment of pure evil. By contrast, there are a solid half-dozen all-the-way humans, complete with physiology and prominent speaking parts, some of whom are even vaguely familiar faces from gritty genre fare both small screen and large – Travis Fimmel lends legendary warrior Anduin Lothar the same halting, peculiar speech patterns and dripping almost charisma he brings to the History Channel’s Vikings, though he leaves his trademark perma-smirk at home in Norway; Dominic Cooper, currently starring in AMC’s Preacher, makes for both a wholly unremarkable and unobjectionable king of Stormwind – but none of whom can quite catch a break with this script. The heaviest dramatic lifting is reserved for the thankless role of half-breed orc** turned P.O.W. Garona, a whiplash-inducing, side-flipping difference-splitter played, behind sympathy-courting, sickly green makeup, by a game Paula Patton. Mistrusted by her human captors and discounted by her Orcan brethren, Garona is a confused but defiant sentient punching bag, emblematic in her growth over time – or so the film assures us – of the many strong and subtle ways that applied empathy can change the face of battle. Meanwhile, mobilizing against this fearsome and imminent new threat, the citizens of Azeroth convene a Fellowship-style conclave in which to hold grave and heated discussions where Fimmel basically counsels action, Cooper counsels caution, and the audience waits for something to happen.

**Due to the clear size disparity, her superior skincare regimen, and comparatively dainty underbite, the other half of Garona’s parentage would appear to be human, though that makes so little sense in context that the film, perhaps loath to shoehorn anything else into its already seam-splitting narrative, leaves the mystery not just unsolved but unremarked upon. 

The laws of decorum and full disclosure dictate at this juncture I reveal that, although it’s (surprisingly) been years since my last visit, I am nevertheless a seasoned veteran of the massively multiplayer online role playing game World of Warcraft, the exhaustive and apparently inexhaustible Warcraft sequel/continuation, and a floodgate through which many millions of uninitiated made their own lasting, indelible connection with Azeroth. I warned you before that very few people are going to wander into this movie version clueless, and while you might think such familiarity would be a boon to any prospective viewer, I’d label it, at best, a double-edged sword. Unlike so many games that make a play at immersion, much of the underlying appeal of WoW – and, I gather, Warcraft – lies in the fact that it is a living, breathing fantasy world, impressively imagined, meticulously constructed and maintained, and, as it would turn out, zealously defended by the more than twelve million players that, at its peak, called it home. Translating Azeroth to film is a daunting proposition I would wish on none but my worst enemies. As I watched, I found myself growing increasingly restless with the film, instinctively craving more of the rich exploration and prickly, close quarters assassinations and other SEAL-type infiltration missions that I, as a WoW player, was attuned to over the sort of empty arena, full scale warfare that Warcraft favors, and whose inherent vagueries tried my patience as recently as in the near endless titular climax of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014). Even as a neophyte to the core series, and RTS games in general, I’m at a loss as to any finer nuance underlying the battle tactics as portrayed on-screen, which generally amount to, “charge at the enemy across a large, open field, Braveheart-style.”  Ideally, I would expect more.

But my prejudices, which are legion, are showing. A deeper inspection of the film reveals that it is not, in fact, called World of Warcraft. Leave that for the third sequel, I guess. Director and co-writer Jones – who clearly at least has passing knowledge of the series – is at pains to impress upon the viewer Azeroth’s vast scale in terms of distance traveled, but is hampered by his busy, scattershot script as to its geographic diversity***, which the games, sometimes to their detriment, have to an almost comical degree. An instructive if perhaps unintended consequence of this is that the viewer spends entirely too much of the movie watching a single character flying between far-flung map points on the back of a winged griffin, which is how transit of the non-pedestrian, non-teleportation variety still happens for millions of WoW players every day. For a movie in which miles beyond count are ostensibly traveled, Warcraft has a deadly, decidedly boxed-in feel to it. Jaw-dropping exterior and interior shots – exactly one apiece – of the wintry dwarven stronghold Ironforge seem to exist entirely in order to hint at how expansive the world of Azeroth might become in obviously hoped-for future installments of the franchise. It doesn’t help that these background elements, comparative throwaways like griffin’s-eye aerial POV shots of the sprawling human city of Stormwind, are unequivocally the coolest single visual elements in a movie that has obviously overspent on populating and animating its foreground. Along with the two lead orcs, the feisty griffin is actually the most eye-catching and engaging character in the film, CGI or otherwise.

***The dense, mood-lit forest of WoW’s Teldrassil, for but the most glaring example, is freaking gorgeous in game, though I understand that in order to be fully realized on film it’d have to be yet another 100% CGI-rendered element. More’s the pity. The closest we get to a visit is watching three incredibly uptight and, frankly, suspicious Night Elf emissaries look around at each other in amusing consternation and faux outrage every time a new proclamation about the looming war is made.

A movie like Warcraft can’t quite win. The question, honestly, is whether it should have even tried. Almost every character choice the film makes ends up feeling a little off, though its underlying craft and determination do shine through. A laudable amount of work has gone into, if not exactly making the orcs distinguishable from one another, then at least making them look cool, but if Jones lingers on Durotan long enough to earmark him as more than just guttural axe-fodder, it muddles the proceedings and kills the adrenaline, whereas overcorrecting and kicking up the action – which, though concussive and kinetic, never feels that much more cinematic than the already impressive extended cutscenes that kick off WoW’s periodic in-game expansions – makes it rote and impersonal. Presented with anonymous humans, save six, and a literal horde of orcs that each seem to stretch off in ragged procession for as far as the eye can see, how can Jones make us truly care about anything that is going on? We don’t grasp the stakes, in part, because we don’t know the world. We can’t know the world, in part, because we don’t have the time. The Warcraft script is excited but greedy, ambitious but clumsy, with several jarring shifts in narrative gear, a distractingly rushed climax, and a game-changing second act twist that carries with it the uncanny feeling that you’re watching a stunning personal betrayal unfold at your weekly neighborhood poker game, when you’ve never played poker before, and it’s not even your neighborhood. Warcraft is a noble misfire, a well-intentioned, unevenly executed enterprise craft project that invests so much capitol in making places and things look right, and in making its computer-generated orcs ready for their Oscar close-up, that it unfortunately shortchanges its flesh and blood components. It is nevertheless still probably worth seeing, provided you don’t plan to spend much time in thought.

“Warcraft” (2016) 2/4 stars                                                                                                        dae2.0

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