Wednesday, June 22, 2016

For the Horde!: Warcraft

The world of (Duncan Jones') Warcraft.

It’s been common in recent years for big blockbuster films to enlist low-budget directors whose indie cred can ensure the success of a new franchise, which is a trend I find sort of fascinating. Disney, in particular, has proved itself fond of this tactic: Colin Trevorrow and Rian Johnson both only had a small feature or two to their names when they were scouted for the second and third films in the new Star Wars trilogy; James Gunn’s IMDB page boasted only a few forgotten genre titles like Slither (2006) and Super (2010) until he launched a global phenomenon with Guardians of the Galaxy; and Joss Whedon stepped up to the plate for The Avengers with nothing but some beloved cult TV shows and a few screenwriting credits under his belt (and managed to hit a total home run, not only making that film a box office smash, but defining the tone and style of most Marvel titles to follow). At this point, I’m fully expecting to see Alex Garland direct a reboot of Masters of the Universe or something.

The latest addition to this club is Duncan Jones, whose expertise at crafting smart, intimate, independent sci-fi films like Moon (2009) and Source Code (2011) has somehow qualified him to direct a $160 million fantasy epic based on Blizzard’s Warcraft series of computer games. I’m not complaining, because the formula continues to work in his (and our) favour: while Warcraft is big and loud and heavily plotted, with cringeworthy dialogue and limited characterization, it’s also shot through with the passionate, quietly surprising intelligence that typifies Jones’ work. It’s a crazy mess of a film, but I kind of adored it.

For fans of the Warcraft games, the setting will be familiar, although the specific storyline is ripped from the PC titles Warcraft: Orcs and Humans (1994) and Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness (1996) and thus might be a bit outdated for most gaming audience members. Everyone else is left to follow along, or ask for a refund. Be brave and keep up with me now: a race of ogre-like warriors called Orcs seek to escape their dying homeworld of Draenor, trusting their chief warlock Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) to deliver them to safety through a giant portal, which is fueled by an evil magic called The Fel, a force which feeds on all forms of life. The Fel has consumed Draenor, and the Orc warchiefs, represented by the honourable Durotan (Toby Kebbell) and the fierce Orgrim (Robert Kazinsky), hope to escape it by travelling through the portal and conquering whatever world lies on the other side. That world is Azeroth, the realm of Humans, led by King Llane (Dominic Cooper) and the military commander Lothar (Travis Fimmel), who must enlist the help of the realm’s Guardian, a supremely powerful mage named Medivh (Ben Foster), to contend with the invading Horde and the evil magic they bring with them. That’s the plot, you made it! Congratulations! Take a breather.

Toby Kebbell as Durotan, in Duncan Jones' Warcraft.

You may have noted what must seem like an excessive amount of capitalization in some of those names, and that’s because this is capital-F Fantasy Storytelling, where Arthurian iconography and the weirdness of Dungeons & Dragons stride hand in hand, outsized and exaggerated, like Tolkien on speed. Knights ride gryphons bareback. Mages cast spells with chanted babble and twirls of the hand that fill the air with fiery colour. Humans in all their diversity are a race unto themselves, stacked as they are against their weird, exotic allies and foes, from the monstrous-looking Orcs to the cold, alien Elves. This distinct style is a holdover from the games, which – in the case of titles like the extremely popular World of Warcraft – allow players to choose from a cornucopia of strange races to create their character and join either the rampaging Horde or the noble Alliance. To gamers, and those versed in fantasy literature, this stuff is as pedestrian as a trip to the corner store. To general moviegoing audiences, I can only imagine it must be a cannonade of baffling stimuli, a maelstrom of oversized weaponry and nonsense words. To be frank, I pity those who are put off by it – there’s richness and depth hiding under those cartoonish genre trappings, although Jones asks you to dig to find it. And for the Blizzard fans, who I’m sure comprise the vast majority of the film’s audience, he works overtime investing every frame with things they’ll recognize, from a cutaway shot of Frostmourne resting on a sword rack, to a murloc gurgling its distinctive gurgle, to a quick Polymorph cast on an unsuspecting guard. Jones even takes pains to demonstrate that the Orcs and Humans are speaking different languages and cannot understand one another, something WoW players who have tried to taunt an enemy player will instantly recognize. It’s clearly a film aimed at a very specific audience, which doesn’t really care to capture the casual viewer’s attention. It’s an approach that, combined with the film’s poor domestic returns, is aiming it straight for cult status – and it’s an approach for which I have a lot of respect.

Perhaps the best example of Warcraft’s bombastic attitude is the easiest one to notice: its visual effects. This is a film that trades in unreality, and it spares no time to acclimate you to its bizarre look, which is perfectly representative of Blizzard’s distinctive art style – the oversized armour, massive swords, glowing eyes, and rippling muscles in the film will seem perfectly natural to anyone who’s played WoW or Hearthstone, but are unlike almost anything we’ve seen on the big screen before. Jones tiptoes the fine line between realism and total fantasy, combining heavy use of CGI and greenscreen environments with physical props, costumes, and sets to create a super-stylized setting which is still convincing and tactile. (It’s sort of the opposite of magical realism: realistic magicism, maybe?) And when it comes to the look of the characters themselves, Warcraft is nothing short of amazing. It’s no surprise that performance-capture technology is constantly improving, but the benefits of that evolution have never been more clear. Warcraft’s Orcs look astoundingly good, their faces positively alive with every subtle emotion conveyed by the actor. There’s good performance capture, and then there’s this, which takes a creature as disproportionate and weird-looking as Durotan – with his mouthful of tusks, and his gigantic arms and hands and tiny head – and makes him easily the most likeable and relatable character in the film. Kebbell’s performance, even beneath a thick layer of computer animation, is subtle and personal, bringing us up close to the conflict that the warchief feels between saving his race and deserting everything he knows. The film opens with a scene in which Durotan watches over his pregnant wife, Draka (Anna Galvin), unable to conceal his emotion at the joy he feels about his budding family and the despair of the world they inhabit. Jones goes all-in, and the result is a weird, beautiful, resonant scene that will either instantly win you over, or make you realize the extent of what you’ve gotten yourself into: an epic fantasy film that actually dares to take itself seriously.

Robert Kazinsky as Orgrimin Warcraft.

Of course, with so much effort spent on getting us to like these big scary ogre people, something had to give on the other side. It’s almost ironic how flat and uninteresting the human characters are when compared with their Orc counterparts, who are downright intimidating with their rumbling voices and their huge, heavily-muscled bodies, which loom in the frame as tangibly as the real actor standing next to them. Travis Fimmel is a total flatline as Lothar, failing to wring anything interesting out of his character and constantly tripping over his bizarre accent. Ben Schnetzer plays the upstart mage Khadgar as though he was composited into his scenes in post, and Paula Patton is utterly embarrassing as the half-breed Garona. This is where Warcraft’s dedication to taking itself and its source material seriously ends up hurting it, because its cast often struggles to sell this weird material. Thankfully Cooper, one of the more talented cast members, manages to bring some quiet nuance to Llane, hinting at a deeper character than the one in the script, and Ben Foster approaches a great performance with Medivh, whom he plays like a magic addict trying, and failing, to kick the habit that’s killing him. Performances are inconsistent across the board, and with a script so thick with exposition and cheesy dialogue, it takes the unique brashness of the visuals to pull you along. I was constantly waiting for Warcraft to cut back to the Orcs.

There’s an undeniable tension happening within this film, which manifests as a nervous energy that propels the story along at a breakneck clip, as though it’s desperate to escape the problems with each scene by chasing them into the next. Its action sequences are bone-crunchingly satisfying, making the Orcs a terrifying fighting force, cashing every cheque signed by their ferocious appearance – but the pure, breathless excitement of these scenes is undercut by the thin characterization for pretty much every character except Durotan. Jones, being the dutiful sci-fi filmmaker he is, invests the script with plenty of interesting thematics including racial tension, addiction, loyalty, and fathers and sons, but these great and worthwhile ideas become garbled when passed through the awful, tin-eared dialogue. The film is as interested in creating a new and lucrative franchise as any first-time blockbuster, but does little to seduce the average moviegoer, making it part of the strange little club of domestic flops that do extraordinarily well overseas. It’s a true testament to Jones’ talent – and the fact that the old “hire an indie director to make your blockbuster” formula really does work – that Warcraft still somehow wrestles free of its conflicted nature and delivers a large, often wondrous vision of what video game film adaptations can be at their best.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.


  1. Great review. I agree on most points you brought up: hugely cheesy but beautiful and true enough to the Warcraft world to induce nostalgia. But when it comes to the performance by the human actors, I have to disagree on most points and say that I thought the only names worth mentioning were Lothar and Medivh; both gave good performances in my opinion (especially Lothar, considering his script was pretty weak!). But Garona and the rest of the humans I thought were just wretched. It's really too bad a higher caliber of actor couldn't be used on this film. Considering the size of the audience, I really think Llane and Garona could have been casted 1000x better.

    As for the story, I liked it! And I like that the ending was cliff hanger-ish. Can't wait to see what they come up with for the next film (hoping there will be one).

    -Nick P

  2. There will certainly be a sequel, given the movie's excellent performance overseas and the huge volume of story content to draw from going forward (Thrall and Grom, Wrath of the Lich King, etc). Whether Jones stays on or not is a good question - my money's on no, I think he'll leave the franchise alone after this first one and go back to doing what he knows best.

    I'm in total agreement about Paula Patton's general awfulness, and that Foster was great as Medivh, but your comment about Llane has me curious. What was it about Cooper's performance that didn't grab you? As you pointed out, they were all working with material that, so I thought he did a fine job with what he was given, but that's a take I haven't heard yet. What turned you off?

    Thanks for your comment!