I feel conflicted about Duncan Jones’ Warcraft. On the one hand, it’s a movie that comes off as bloated, loaded down with exposition, and constantly trying to service too many characters while ultimately serving almost none of them. And yet it’s also a film that left me wanting more. Jones’ ambition sucks us in with his unabashed high fantasy world building. Warcraft is a film that is loaded with problems, and yet I couldn’t help but admire what it was trying to accomplish.
The world of orcs is dying so the dark mage Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) has opened a portal to the world of Azeroth. The orcs plan to capture as many humans as possible so that Gul’dan can use their souls to power the portal and bring in the remaining hordes. The orc chieftain Durotan (Toby Kebbell) and his friend Orgrim (Robert Kazinsky) see that the dark magic Gul’dan is using, named “The Fel”, is damaging orc kind and believe that in order to save their people, they must unite with the humans. King Llane (Dominic Cooper) leads the humans along with his brother-in-law Lothar (Travis Fimmel), and they are assisted by the half-breed Garona (Paula Patton), the mage Medivh (Ben Foster), and the mage-in-training Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer).
Warcraft greedily wants to have all the plots, but in trying to service everyone, it ends up helping no one. Character motivations become muddled and some characters are described as interesting or have the potential to become interesting, but instead remain basic. For example, Gul’dan is ostensibly the villain, but he ends up saving Durotan’s newborn child when it comes through the portal. That should create conflicted feelings from Durotan about how he should lead his people but if he should also honor the orc who saved his child. But the film never does anything with that, and so a moment of potential conflict is laid by the wayside.
I admire Jones’ attempt to show both sides of the conflict and make us sympathize with the orcs, but because the orcs are underdeveloped, his attempt comes up short. I constantly found myself wanting to go back to Medivh’s storyline, not just because Foster is terrific (as always), but because there’s an interesting dynamic at play between the elder guardian and the neophyte Khadgar. If the story had focused more on this relationship, it could have blossomed into something grander, but it never gets the time to develop because the story is always jumping around between its many characters.
With such scattershot storytelling, it’s difficult to latch on to anyone, and while some actors give better performances than others (along with Foster, Fimmel and Kebbell are the standouts), we still want to know them better. Warcraft is this constant double-edged sword where we’re getting too much and yet not getting enough of anything. It’s like if someone dumped a bunch of thread at your feet and told you it was a shirt.
The only thing that feels fully crafted in Warcraft is the world. I went to see the movie with a fan of the game, and she said that this is a film that definitely errs on the side of the fans, and that in one scene where we see the orcs rampaging through villages, the geography of Azeroth is spot on. That’s great for fans, but it’s lost on those who are unfamiliar with the lore or who have never booted up Blizzard’s popular strategy game.
And yet I could still admire the high fantasy Jones brought into place. Rather than go for “realism” like Game of Thrones or even Lord of the Rings, Jones embraces the weirdness and high fantasy aspect, and it’s absolutely thrilling. Some may find that it’s a bridge too far and that it becomes silly, but I was completely on board with the human-smashing, orc-hammering, bird-flying, spell-casting goodness on display. Warcraft never makes excuses for what it is, and I love that it has the confidence to be as weird as it wants.
I also have to give special attention to the astounding visual effects. The orcs look absolutely incredible, and the only time I was ever taken out of the movie was when I was far away and looking at a CGI horde smash up against another CGI horde. Up close and personal, the orcs are photo-real, and Jones takes the time to let us sit with their emotions. Again, there are going to be some viewers who can’t be on board with orcs acting like people, but if you can embrace the concept, you can marvel at what Industrial Light & Magic has pulled off.
I wouldn’t go so far to call Warcraft a good movie. It’s crushed under its own ambition, and yet that ambition is highly admirable in the same way as films like John Carter where it might not work, but it earns points just for being bold and different in an increasingly homogenized landscape. And while Warcraft suffers from throwing too much at the audience, I would happily return for a sequel, assuming it’s more focused.