Release Date: May 30th, 2016 (UK); June 10th, 2016 (US)
Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy
Starring: Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Toby Kebbell, Dominic Cooper
It has become the norm: independent filmmakers, fresh off a critical and commercial doozy, cast as the head of a cinematic juggernaut. Colin Trevorrow went from Safety Not Guaranteed to Jurassic World. Gareth Edwards, Monsters to Godzilla and now Star Wars. And here’s Duncan Jones, a director with science fiction sensibilities and a penchant for creating smart stories, now perched atop the film version of arguably the biggest online role-playing game in the world. Warcraft has been years in the making (10, in fact, but at least three under the tutelage of Jones) and you can see that effort on-screen. You can also see and feel the director’s touch, his love of nuance and, as was the case in both Moon and Source Code, his heralding of complex characters.
Sure, Warcraft isn’t the most original fantasy movie ever made, and sure, there are some significant problems. But Jones brings a maturity that would have likely been missing had a less crafty filmmaker been in charge. Thank goodness too, because that maturity affords viewers the opportunity to engage with those on-screen. Those being: Sir Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), a charismatic warrior charged with defending the world of Azeroth when a Horde of rampaging orcs appear via gigantic portal. One of the orcs is Durotan (Toby Kebbell) whose wife is heavily pregnant with their child and whose conscience defies the evil antics of leader Gul’dan (Daniel Wu). Essentially, the latter wants to sap the life from humans and use that energy to further power the aforementioned portal, paving the way for an unstoppable orc army.
It’s a lot to take in, especially when you consider the legion of other characters I haven’t yet mentioned: half-orc half-human Garona (Paula Patton), Guardian mage Medivh (Ben Foster), young apprentice Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), and King Llane Wrynn (Dominic Cooper). There are more still, and you can see the mythology’s depth throughout the opening half hour as Jones and co-writer Charles Leavitt introduce each chess piece. What this means is a period of bamboozlement for us uninformed lot — early scenes are stitched together like multicoloured patchwork, at first confusing and a bit tough to get one’s head around. But to Jones and Leavitt’s credit, events become easier to follow when the individual story strands merge to create a cohesive whole.
In light of the ongoing refugee crisis, you might draw conclusions from the movie’s explicit imagery depicting the movement of populations. But there doesn’t seem to me to be any political point-scoring going on. Quite the opposite given we see good and bad on both sides, something reflected often in the real world though not necessarily promoted by Hollywood. Humans and orcs are treated equally: Jones opens on Durotan and his wife Draka (Anna Galvin) having a laugh and joke about their appearance. It’s made clear that these gargantuan creatures endure the same frailties and hold the same grudges as we do. Some of the orcs are evil, not because they’re orcs but because they’re evil and because they champion power-hungry agendas. Others like Orgrim Doomhammer (Robert Kazinsky) are more subtly shaded, though the reasons why are best left to the movie.
Of course, the human characters are ultimately the most sympathetic — fitting, given they are on the defensive throughout — and you get caught up in their plight. This is mainly down to the work of Fimmel as Lothar, a thoroughly effective protagonist with a magnificent weary war face, and Patton, whose sturdy Garona acts as a genetic bridge between the two races. Their interactions initially point towards a conventional destination but, again, the filmmakers explore a credibly different route. Lothar has been cast as the movie’s Aragorn and there are similarities between the two, however it is Cooper’s King Llane who really dons that crown: like Return of the King Aragorn, he values loyalty and manifests as an amiable ruler at a time where figures of power in real life are not so amiable (“War with us will solve nothing”).
Warcraft does struggle to evade the shadow of Peter Jackon’s trilogy, especially in an aesthetic sense. An extended fight sequence around halfway through might as well be a deleted scene from the franchise, set in a dark ashen gravel-scape resembling Mordor (there’s even an enormous fiery mountain in the background). Look out for an Isengard-esque construction shot, and listen out for a “for Frodo” declaration. Perhaps the comparisons are unfair but everyone who goes to see Warcraft will have seen The Lord of the Rings in some form and the similarities are tough to shake. Having said that, the visuals are generally impressive; minute details differentiate the orcs and make the individual CG characters stand out — a particularly evil baddie sports wolf skull shoulder pads and a pitch black beard. Kebbell, it should be noted, puts in another commendable motion-capture performance.
Paul Hirsch’s editing style occasionally jars as one scene fades to the next but there are fun visual snippets for fans of the game, including an aerial shot that jumps from town to town showing the damage done by a rampaging orc army. And I should point out a spot of superb editing towards the end: Hirsch flirts between two separate inter-species battles, highlighting the need for civilisations to solve their own issues before causing problems elsewhere. Flawed, somewhat parochial systems of hierarchy — Khadgar’s struggles as a young mage; the slave state we see Garona in when she first appears — would have benefited from deeper analysis had more time been available.
The film is bookended by two “Warcraft” title cards, the first of which arrives bearing a summer popcorn aura. Big, brassy letters. A booming score. Jones’ movie opens with that event cinema feel and almost capitalises thereafter. Even though it doesn’t quite reach the lofty heights set by the superior fantasy blockbusters of yesteryear, Warcraft wins favour in its attempt to establish captivating, varied characters (the feature passes the Bechdel test during a conversation between Garona and Ruth Negga’s Lady Taria). It’s three stars but three very good stars, and a very enjoyable, surprisingly engaging, two hours at the cinema.
Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures