Review: Warcraft

In the interest of full disclosure, I want to begin by stating that I have two conflicting biases that may affect my opinion of "Warcraft." On the one hand, I've been a fan of the Warcraft video game series for about fourteen years. Whatever this film's target audience is, I'm unquestionably in it. But on the other hand, I'm predisposed against video game movies because throughout cinematic history they have been, without exception, complete garbage. The safest bet you could make is that "Warcraft" would be too.

But it wasn't! I enjoyed "Warcraft" more than I didn't and while I wouldn't say this is a great film, it is a pretty fun one that comes nearer to breaking the game movie curse than any preceding adaptation. "Warcraft's" greatest flaw is an unevenness that pervades its every aspect, a flaw that becomes an asset in the context of the genre's low expectations. "Warcraft" suffers typical video game movie lows but is elevated above its station by highs that suggest a better movie beneath the schlock.

The war in "Warcraft" is fought between the orcs, a hulking warrior race from a distant dying world, and the humans of Azeroth whose lands they seek to claim as their new home. The orcs are led there through a portal created by the sorcerer Gul'dan, whose twisted magic is fueled by stolen life. Gul'dan seeks to subdue and sacrifice the humans beyond to power a second portal strong enough to transport the entire waiting orc horde to Azeroth.

But not all orcs follow blindly. Durotan, chieftain of one of the orc clans, is wary of Gul'dan's magic and rejects the fel that turns the warlock's followers into green-skinned juggernauts. And wisely too, as it turns out Gul'dan's gift is a sort of faustian bargain with a high price. Durotan comes to suspect that Gul'dan's magic is not a source of power, but corruption, and turns to the only ones on Azeroth who might help him save his people: the humans.

For their part, the human forces led by King Llane stage a meager defense against the surprise invasion. Returning bodies marked by the fel draw the attention of a young mage named Khadgar. Alarmed that something more sinister than orcs is at work, he implores the king and his warrior Lothar to summon the kingdom's guardian, his former master Medivh. Together, they seek to unravel the mysteries of the fel and repel the orc invaders before it's too late.

One of "Warcraft's" strengths is that it resists the temptation to take sides in the war between orcs and humans. The war may be fought between the races, but the orcs do not have a monopoly on evil, nor the humans on good. Even if character motivations in "Warcraft" are not terribly complex, the film achieves some depth by having characters on both sides struggle with the film's themes of loyalty, trust, sacrifice and fatherhood. "Warcraft" has a few poignant moments that hint at a beating heart hidden somewhere in the script.

Unfortunately, you can only hear a heartbeat about half the time. Surprisingly, the orc-centric scenes stand the tallest. Durotan is without question the most developed character in the movie, best-written and convincingly brought to life with outstanding visual effects and a terrific performance by Toby Kebbell. Durotan's character arc is complete and satisfying because we see every step as it unfolds. We see him as an expecting father playfully teasing his pregnant mate. We get a sense of his worry as the pair walk into Gul'dan's portal. In one of my favorite scenes, we see his harrowing first moments of fatherhood. It's not much, but these scenes help us get a sense of why Durotan makes the choices he does.

This is contrasted by entirely two-dimensional live action characters, who feel less real than any of the computer-generated orcs. There's no evidence of the care put into making Durotan relatable. Relationships are established by characters simply stating to each other how they are related to each other, then moving on with no elaboration. Without meaningful relationships, there is no reason to invest in the characters. With the exception of Khadgar, whose doughy boyish looks and clumsy nature are endearing, no one is really memorable. Well, I suppose there's Medivh, who is memorable because of terrible miscasting.

Generally speaking, if you split the orc and human scenes of "Warcraft" into separate films, I'd swear they were made by entirely different people. The two halves' tones are wildly different, with orc tending towards heft and the serious and the human scenes more lighthearted and comedy bordering on weightlessness. Nowhere is this more evident than the film's climax, which peaks early with orc drama then collapses into a relentlessly silly fight against a chorus of bad ideas and execution. Even the visual effects in human scenes are bafflingly terrible. They must have blown the budget on the orcs; it's the only way to explain human spell effects and glowing eyes so decidedly B-grade. And a special mention to the worst looking elves in movie history!

Still, I enjoyed "Warcraft." There's almost certainly more here for fans of the series than the uninitiated, but director Duncan Jones has done well enough in his telling of Durotan's story to make up for at least some of the bad choices in those of Lothar and Khagdar. I've never seen a video game movie that left me thinking that a sequel could be better, but here we are: I'm actually not repulsed by the idea of a "Warcraft 2." If they learn from what went well in this installment, it could be the first truly great video game movie.

"Assassin's Creed" is still going to be garbage, though.

Score: 3 / 5 

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