A film review by Craig J. Koban June 17, 2016


2016, PG-13, 123 mins.


Toby Kebbell as Durotan  /  Anna Galvin as Draka  /  Travis Fimmel as Anduin Lothar  /  Dominic Cooper as King Llane Wrynn  /  Ruth Negga as Lady Taria Wrynn  /  Daniel Wu as Gul'dan  /  Ben Foster as Medivh  /  Paula Patton as Garona Halforcen  /  Ben Schnetzer as Khadgar  /  Robert Kazinsky as Orgrim Doomhammer  /  Clancy Brown as Blackhand

Directed by Duncan Jones  /  Written by Jones and Charles Leavitt


The video game to movie adaptation genre has been the laughable critical punching bag for what seems like an eternity.  Why?  Because a lionís share of its entries have frankly been consistently terrible.    

WARCRAFT has very high aspirations of eroding the rotten taste that countless video game movies have elicited in our collective mouths over the last several decades, and to say that the film is a courageous undertaking is a criminal understatement.  Not only is it intrepidly attempting to inject some much need life into a genre on critical life support, but itís also dauntingly adapting one of the most popular and widely played video games in the world.  Blizzard Entertainmentís WORLD OF WARCRAFT has become such a ubiquitous entity in the gaming world that even people that have never picked up a video game controller/keyboard/mouse know of its existence. 

Thankfully, the WARCRAFT film has a resoundingly strong pedigree of talent behind the scenes that instantly helps write it off from being a qualitative disaster.  The film was co-written and directed by the great Duncan Jones, who previously made one the finest sci-fi films of the last decade (that virtually no one saw) in SOURCE CODE and before that made the equally compelling MOON.  If anything, Jonesí unbridled passion and enthusiasm for the underlining material (by his own admission, he has been WARCRAFT devotee for years) is something that simply canít be said about so many other video game film translations that feel cold and uninviting.  He somehow finds a manner of paying faithful respect and homage to the gameís core mythology while simultaneously crafting an eye-popping and sumptuously realized fantasy odyssey that holds up as well as anything that Peter Jackson, George Lucas, or James Cameron ever conjured up on the silver screen.  Even though thoroughly replicating the gameís endlessly dense and labyrinthine mythology doesnít always translate well to viewers unfamiliar with it, WARCRAFT nevertheless goes for broke with an unwaveringly headstrong and commendable spirit by Jones and company. 



Distilling the overall plot dynamics of WARCRAFT here will arguably be as challenging as Jones' attempts at relaying them in the film.  WARCRAFT is ostensibly concerned with the brewing war between humans and orcs.  The orcs themselves are gigantic fanged and dreadlocked behemoths that would dwarf the Hulk.  Aside from their intimidating and monstrous facades, the orcs are not savagely simple-minded killing machines.  Some of them are sensitive minded family men, like Durotan (Tobey Kebbell), who just recently became a father to a rather adorable, pointy-eared baby orc after his wife Draka (Anna Galvin) gave birth early in the film.  However, the world around Durotanís relatively peaceful home life is anything but serene.  The orcs are ruled over with a despotic fist by a cruel wizard Gulídan (Daniel Wu) that wishes to take his kind out of their decaying world of Draenor and into the human world of Azeroth, where theyíll invade and take everything and anything they please.  Gulídan hopes to do so via a magical portal that requires, I think, the souls of the living to power it.  

Obviously, Durotan is not really down which such nefarious plans and is rightfully conflicted about his duty to his species and the twisted motives of Gulídan to pillage anything in his path in Azeroth.  The humans of Azeroth are ruled over by King Llane Wrynn (a somewhat comatose Dominic Cooper), his trusted sidekick/friend and devoted warrior Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel) and the guardian (wizard) Medivh (Ben Foster).  Realizing the scope and severity of a large scale orc incursion on their lands, the king methodically plans for an equally immense defensive.  During one early skirmish the kingís men capture the half human, half orc Garona (Paula Patton, looking conspicuously like Gamora from GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY), but the king frees her on the condition that she will help them against the orc/human war to come.   

For starters, WARCRAFT is a masterpiece of art direction, production design, and visual effects dynamism.  Jones and his intrepid team lovingly and boldly create a world that cannot be...and a fully lived in and tactile one that immensely helps viewers to fully cement themselves in this filmís multiple universes.  On a level of pure visual world building, WARCRAFT is an unqualified triumph, especially in the arena of what has to be the finest motion capture that has ever graced a feature film.  Kebbell himself is no stranger to the flourishing technology (see the last two PLANET OF THE APES films), and WARCRAFT represents a staggeringly remarkable marriage of his surprisingly nuanced and layered performance and cutting edge digital fakery.  The Orcs look and feel positively real in nearly ever scene they occupy, which is assisted by Jonesí insistence to make Durotan arguably the most compellingly rendered character in the entire film.  Yes, heís a beast, and yes, heís the product of visual effects, but thereís rarely a moment in WARCRAFT when you doubt the authenticity of this larger-than-life being.  He's a relatable character, not an antiseptic and soulless effect.   

I only wished, though, that the human characters in WARCRAFT were as engagingly well rounded and interesting as the CG orcs in the film.  Thereís something immediately to be said about a film that asks us to empathize and identify with non-human characters, which is admirable (when it boils right down to it, there are no clear cut, black and white heroes and villains - excluding Gul'dan - in the film), but Jones drops the ball a bit when it comes making the protagonists of Azeroth compelling.  Cooper looks largely overwhelmed and confused throughout much of the film, and Ben Foster is kind of all over the proverbial map as the guardian that canít be fully trusted.  Travis Fimmell looks the part of a dashing fantasy swashbuckling hero, but he lacks a distinct personality altogether his own.  Arguably, the only human persona here that commands any sizable attention is the half-breed Garona.  She occupies a thoughtful subplot involving her slow and gradual trust of humankind (even though a sort-of romantic angle between her and Anduin is awkwardly handled without much payoff).  She might be the only performer that appears largely in human form in the film that gives something approximating a fully formed performance. 

This brings me to the other problems that plague WARCRAFT: its overall mythology is very impenetrable, especially to franchise neophytes.  Attempting to shoehorn in so many characters, so many core ideas, so many locations, and so much in the way expositional particulars into a world as large as WARCRAFT into the confines of a two-hour film really shows in the final product.  Casual filmgoers and those unfamiliar with WARCRAFT lore (count me among the latter) may have great difficulty trying to deduce who is who, how they relate to one another, and what the geographical differences are between Stormwind, Tirisfal, Azeroth and Draenor.   For the initiated, the film will undoubtedly feel like information overload, asking audiences to keep mental track of the litany of names, places, relationships, and conflicts that exists within.  The overall editing of the film also suggests a longer one thatís not present that may have expanded upon establishing its narrative.  Sometimes, scenes have a definitive beginning, middle, and then a very abrupt ending (or none at all) before haphazardly segueing to the next unrelated scene.  The freewheeling manner that the film zips from moment to moment doesnít help viewers like me in trying to make sense of whatís going on here. 

Yet, WARCRAFT still managed to endlessly captivate me despite how much it bloody confounded me on storytelling particulars.  Jones concocts such a stupendously rich and textured fantasy landscape built up upon by some of the most impeccably engineered visual effects that Iíve seen that it ultimately became impossible not to be swept up by the sheer filmmaking craft and majesty of it all.  I found myself surrendering to the universe of WARCRAFT.  The manner that Jones somehow juggles and brings together the immensity of ingredients that made the video game franchise adored by millions and somehow makes it mostly work in a feature film is all rather thankless.  I felt like I wanted to return to the cinematic world of WARCRAFT, something that I have never said about nearly all other video game movie adaptations in the past.  Many critics have been lambasting this film, which is unfair.  Despite its obvious and nagging faults, WARCRAFT occupies a whole other qualitative hemisphere above the genre films that came before itÖand itís one that deserves big screen consumption to fully appreciate its unbridled ambitiousness.  



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