WARCRAFT. Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, Toby Kebbell, Ben Schnetzer. Directed by Duncan Jones. 123 minutes. Rated M (Fantasy violence).
With ‘Moon’ and ‘Source Code’, director Duncan Jones (and son of the late David Bowie) made two of the last decade’s most terrifically memorable sci-fi films. Smart, human and entertaining, they were naturally a calling card to higher budget studio fare. ‘Warcraft’ is the inevitable outcome of this interest shown in Jones, and while it’s nowhere near as awful as many other reviewers would have you believe, it requires a much deeper consideration than his previous works to appreciate, in every sense of the word. See it for yourself to decide.
The story from Jones and co-writer Charles Leavitt is apparently a prequel of sorts, setting up the universe in which players of the successful MMORPG ‘World of Warcraft’ interact, furnished with an array of races including humans, dwarves, elves and orcs. Considering its $150+ million budget, that the film was produced at all is somewhat of a surprise given how niche its market is, and the finished film compounds this shock, with densely specific lore throughout. This reviewer was seated in front of a row of self-professed ‘gamers’, and judging by their regular titters of approval their immediate enjoyment and understanding certainly trumped my own. However the film has certainly grown in my estimation upon a longer reflection, which appears to be more than other critics have given it.
The two races at the centre of the plot are the orcs and the humans. Both are treated as protagonists, which adds a nicely balanced question of who is right to the proceedings. As their home world is dying, the orc tribes unite to be led through an interdimensional portal to Azeroth by Gul’dan (Daniel Wu in mo-cap, as are the rest of the orcs), a warlock who creates the gateway with ‘fel’ magic. ‘Fel’ feeds off living matter, and they require countless sacrificial creatures to make it through. With a sizeable number through to the other side, the plan is to harvest more victims, powering up the gateway for the rest of the orc horde to make the journey across. Durotan (Toby Kebbell), chieftain of the Frostwolf orcs and our orc protagonist, is not convinced by this plan, and believes that Gul’dan’s dark magic may have brought about the destruction of their home.
Azeroth is home to a peaceful alliance of races, and rumours quickly spreads of the monstrous invaders. When word comes to Sir Anduin Lothar (Aussie Travis Fimmel, sporting a hodge-podge of accents), he realises the immense threat and brings word to his brother-in-law and ruler of the human kingdom Stormwind, King Llane (Dominic Cooper). Former mage Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) unearths evidence of the dangerous ‘fel’, and the King sends Anduin with Khadgar to consult the fabled Guardian Medivh (Ben Foster), a sort of magical protector of the realm. He joins their band, and as they set out to look for further clues about the ‘fel’, they are ambushed by a party of orcs. In the ensuing battle, half-half orc-human hybrid Garona (Paula Patton, doing her utmost around dental prosthetics) escapes from her orc captors and joins the humans. With her knowledge and ability to translate between forces, they hope to put a peaceful end to the orc’s invasion.
Meanwhile, things are coming to a head in the orc camp, with Durotan’s plans for revolution and peace crystallising. However, the portal is nearing completion, and the orcs have already amassed a large enough quantity of humans to fuel its cruel magic. Without time to rely upon diplomacy, a human army sets out to destroy the portal, just as Durotan’s own plot appears to be coming undone. The climactic battle stands to decide the fate of not only orcs and humans, but of Azeroth as a whole.
Common criticisms levelled at the film have included an overuse of subpar CGI, confused pacing, humourless tone, and a perplexing physical and socio-political geography. Frankly put, I don’t buy those. The CGI is as good as anything you’ll see in a blockbuster, and the mo-cap technology used to bring the orcs to life in close-ups is impressive in its minute detail. The pacing is occasionally stilted, with some scenes barely registering before our attention is shuttled to the other side of Azeroth. However, as far as the distribution of set pieces goes, the editing and storytelling is very traditional.
Critics lambasted ‘Warcraft’ for not embracing its apparent campiness, but it shouldn’t have to. Yes, fantasy may not be all the rage right now, but it’s entitled to treat its story with gravity, and there are a handful of funny moments scattered through it (with more winks to the game that I know went completely over my head). Finally, this perceived inability to follow where everything is taking place within Azeroth and the minutiae motivating it, it’s frankly no more detailed than any of the fantasy epics which have graced cinemas in recent years (here’s looking at you, anything boasting Tolkien’s name on its source material). I will happily admit to missing some detail, but anyone short of a Tolkien scholar would in truth admit the same about the LOTR films. What it boils down to, in this reviewer’s opinion, is the entrenched distaste for video game films amongst the film ‘cognoscenti’ , what with their reliance on sources lacking the same dominant cultural pedigree of other leather bound ‘classics’.
As I sat in the film, I was on edge waiting for something, some moment which would turn me off completely, which I determined my peers must have all seen and reacted equally to, but it never came. I enjoyed the experience. Admittedly, this is one reviewer’s opinion, but it deserves to be heard amidst the roars of disagreement. The incredibly detailed costume and set design is also a wonder to behold, and Ramin Djawadi’s booming score is a cracker (anyone able to endure the opening salvo without breaking out with goose pimples should have their pulse checked).
It is by no means a perfect film. It could have done with some story polishing to become more accessible to a broader audience. But its vision is bold, and that alone is something worth celebrating when Hollywood is getting notoriously stingy with anything that isn’t a by-the-numbers franchise tentpole.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out June 16.