Warcraft: Working Hard but Hardly Working, by Tyler Smith
The Summer movie season isn’t necessarily a time to expect a lot of hard work, either on the part of the audience or the studios themselves. It is usually just an exercise in franchise expansion and low expectations. Occasionally, a Summer release can surprise us, simply by incorporating a single new idea into a familiar formula. In the case of Duncan Jones’ Warcraft, however, what sets the film apart is a commitment on the part of the director, cast, and crew to create an effective fantasy film. Narratively, the film falls short most of the time, but it’s still nice to see a film that sincerely wants to be good, even if it seldom is.
The story involves the infiltration of a serene medieval kingdom called Azeroth by a species of a battle-hardened monsters bent on domination and destruction. These monsters are called Orcs and their warrior mentality and massive bodies threaten to easily wipe out the Azeroth humans. However, not every orc is callous to the suffering of their victims. Durotan (Tony Kebbell) is an orc chieftain who appears to be committed more to the avoidance of war, rather than the pursuit of it. On the humans’ side, our hero is Lothar (Travis Fimmel), a devoted soldier with complete trust in his king and kingdom. After an initial conflict, both Durotan and Lothar realize that the true enemy is Gul’dan (Daniel Wu), an orc sorcerer whose magic is a poison that destroys everything it touches.
Already, we’re in familiar territory. A medieval kingdom, powerful wizards, massive armies at war; it all feels a bit too much like Lord of the Rings. The villains are called “Orcs”, for Pete’s sake! And, yet, somehow the earnestness of all involved makes everything feel fresh. There is not an ounce of cynicism to Warcraft. Director Duncan Jones undoubtedly wanted to make the best possible movie he could, and every frame is a testament to this. Every aspect of the film reeks of actual effort. The creature design, combined with some notable motion capture effects, made me effectively forget that most of what I was seeing on the screen was completely created in a computer. These visual effects hold up, even in extreme close-up in daylight. And, thankfully, the creature effects don’t overwhelm the performances of the orc actors, among them the always-welcome Clancy Brown.
In fact, most of the actors perform well here. Travis Fimmel does what he can to breathe life into a stock, Maximus-like character. Toby Kebbell continues his streak of being able to do a lot without the use of his natural features, as we saw in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. And special mention should be made of Ben Foster, as Medivh, a weather-beaten wizard sworn to guard the kingdom against all attackers. Foster plays his character as a man who was once amused with the comings and goings of the people of the kingdom – and his charge to protect them – but has become weary and tired over the years. One wouldn’t immediately think that a young actor like Foster could so effectively embody a crusty warlock – the type of character usually reserved for respectable British actors in their twilight years – but he crafts a fully-developed character who remains interesting even when his motivations are obvious.
Between a game cast and some solid special effects, one would think that Warcraft would be more memorable than it is. But, while I can appreciate the obvious effort put in by the director, it all ultimately amounts to a film that is fairly generic and overly-familiar. The hushed tones, the armies of thousands, the muddy battles; we’ve seen it all before, and much better. Many of the plot developments that are meant to shock or bewilder us are predictable and, thus, forgettable. And the fact that the film leaves a number of loose ends – to be tied up in the sequel, should the film do well – only makes the experience more frustrating.
In the end, Warcraft winds up being a whole lot of sound and fury, but, as is often the case with these types of films, it signifies nothing. It was a perfectly fine way to spend a couple hours, but one shouldn’t expect anything in the film to really stick with him once it’s all over. Perhaps that was inevitable, though. Warcraft is just the latest in a long line of movies based on video games that leave the viewer wanting. Maybe video games do indeed work best in an interactive medium. Surely, the visual details of Warcraft are the most engaging part of it, and those are details that can be more fully explored in an actual video game, while here they are simply used to tell a bland and forgettable story.
Despite my reservations and ultimately apathetic response to the film, I can still appreciate that the filmmakers seemed to actually want to impress me. They actually tried, which already sets the film apart from its Summer movie ilk. Perhaps that fact is enough to recommend the film. In Warcraft, we won’t find the laziness inherent in most Summer blockbusters. While these other films seem somehow resigned to their fate, Warcraft celebrates it, and tries its best. And, in doing so, the film seems to understand that, sometimes, it’s not whether you win or lose that matters, but how you play the game.