The challenge facing director Duncan Jones with Warcraft: make a high fantasy video-game flick relying heavily on CGI for one of the races. What could go wrong? Fortunately, much less than you would think. Most of the issues with the film involve specific plot elements, and few of the characters are under-developed (especially the human ones). But, the visuals are astounding, the world-building is impressive, and the lore introduced in this film should provide ample foundation for more nuanced exploration of the world in the future. Warcraft has its faults, but its unique structure explores themes of racial tension, corruption, and legacy in ways that few other fantasy films can accomplish.
The first 10 minutes of the film are awe-inspiring from both a visual and world-building standpoint. After a brief intro, we are on the dying orc world of Draenor with our major characters on the Horde side of the battle. Their spiritual leader is Gul’dan (Daniel Wu), a mage who exploits a form of magic called the fel. The fel is a kind of death magic which requires a sacrifice of the living, so one of the earliest scenes in the film involves cages of prisoners captured in previous raids begging for their lives. Their cries fall on deaf ears, and Gul’dan draws the life from the captives to fuel a dimensional gate. They can’t keep the gate open indefinitely, so only their best warriors go through. On the other side, they will capture more victims to open the gate for the rest of the Horde.
Depicting the orcs on screen was one of the primary challenges for the film; Duncan Jones and company knocked it out of the park. The CGI on the orcs leaps right over the uncanny valley, and the motion-capture acting is counter-intuitively much more natural and realistic than that seen with most of the human characters. This is especially true for the main orc protagonist, the leader of the Frostwolf clan named Durotan (Toby Kebbell). His plight, and of the orcs in general, is comparable to Caesar and his clan from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in that you can actually empathize with these characters and you understand that they are not simple villains. They have goals, arcs, and interesting choices to make, and all of the subplots on the orc side enhance the story in a meaningful way, which is more than can be said for the humans.
From the perspective of the humans, the orcs are invading their homeland. The first character to recognize the severity of the threat is a young mage named Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer). This character is annoying, functions largely through coincidence and luck, and generally feels unnecessary. The lead human Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel) is one of the weaker characters in the film, both from a performance standpoint and his story arc. His sister is married to King Wrynn (Dominic Cooper), and he has a horribly forced relationship with his son, who is also in the King’s army. The other major character is The Guardian, AKA Medivh (Ben Foster), consult to the king and a particularly powerful mage. The majority of the motivation for these characters is mere protection of their homeland, so it is pretty surface-level. The Guardian has an interesting kink in his storyline, though, so that’s where most of the intrigue comes from on this side of the war.
The parallelism established by the film is particularly interesting. The human / orc conflict is not cast as a blunt good vs. evil fight, but as two races struggling for survival – with heroes and villains on each side. Some leaders sacrifice themselves to save their people (or preserve the possibility of peace). Characters in both camps betray their fellows, consumed by corruption. And, there are in-fights and challenges to authority as well. By casting the two races as moral equals, we are encouraged to interpret their struggle with more care: the orcs are not all bad, the humans are not all good, and the forces of evil are not transparent.
Strangely, the editing was a peculiar weakness of the film. There are multiple scenes that seem to last two seconds too long, or two seconds too short and hobble the pacing of the film in some awkward ways. It isn’t quite the nonsensical editing of Batman v Superman where scenes feel out-of-place, too many scenes just feel unnecessary. Some brief sequences are used as a kind of establishing shot but ultimately don’t contribute to the story in any way at all. As a result, you could trim about 10 minutes from this film and end up with something significantly better. A couple of re-writes eliminating some of the most bizarre subplots and providing some real motivation for the weakest characters would have done well too.
But the fundamental aspect of this world is pregnant with possibility, especially for a fantasy franchise. This is a world of duality. Horde vs. Alliance. Both sides are nuanced and easy to relate to, with unique perspectives and ideals. This is in contrast to franchises like The Lord of the Rings, where there are clear delineations between good and evil along racial lines, or Game of Thrones where there are roughly six thousand different factions. Because of this structure, the world of Warcraft offers a unique opportunity to explore themes of race, culture clash, and war/colonialism in a way we haven’t seen in a fantasy setting on the big screen.
The world Duncan Jones has set up is superb, and many of the characters and plot points deliver this first time around, but there are obviously missteps. At the end of the day, genre fans should be excited at the opportunity to hear new stories in this world, and the creators should recognize that there are opportunities to tackle themes that are generally under-developed in the fantasy genre. By elevating beyond the banal execution of this first iteration, they can create something truly transcendent.
The critics have been pretty harsh towards Warcraft, but I think that the most acerbic reviews are missing the forest for the trees – there is a great deal of potential here! And, even though the film opened behind The Conjuring 2, it has already exceeded its budget by over $100 million thanks to a resounding success internationally (especially in China). So, what do you fine folk think? Did you dig the film, or find its faults annoying and too hard to overlook? Are you excited for more stories in this world, or is this a failed attempt that should be discarded? Chime in below, and remember to share with your friends!