REVIEW: Warcraft [2016]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★


Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 123 minutes | Release Date: June 10th, 2016 (USA)
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director(s): Duncan Jones
Writer(s): Duncan Jones & Charles Leavitt / Chris Metzen (story/characters)

“From light comes darkness and from darkness light”

As of a year ago I didn’t know what MMO meant (massively multiplayer online) and only an hour ago learned “World of Warcraft” didn’t always exist as one. Warcraft has actually been around since 1994 as a real-time strategy game without avatars and networking. There was a storyline before sprawling into the ever-expanding phenomenon it’s become, a beginning to this war between humans and orcs that continues to wage decades later. Duncan Jones‘ film is therefore an adaptation of this original history with he and co-writer Charles Leavitt bringing Chris Metzen‘s saga into cinemas for gamers and non-gamers alike. While it surely helps to be the former, I never found wading through the onscreen mythology difficult. And I haven’t played an RPG since Super Nintendo’s “Earthbound” (circa 1995).

What I missed were details that aren’t truly necessary to fully comprehend the campily melodramatic medieval fantasy epic. For instance: upon meeting the orcs on their homeworld of Draenor we see a powerful magician named Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) readying blue-skinned fairy prisoners to be drained of their life force by the mystical Fel in order to open a portal to Azeroth (the human realm). Does the film label these poor creatures as draenei? I don’t recall ever hearing the name. But that’s exactly what they are. Does someone unversed in Warcraft lore care what the draenei are? No. If the main goal of this tale is to shut down this door for which Gul’dan uses humans to power from the Azeroth side, the draenei are mere afterthought—color.

So don’t get bogged down in specifics. Absorb this fully formed universe on a macro level to familiarize mechanics rather than finely tuned details. You don’t need to memorize the kingdoms laid forth with captions, just that there are many. Know that the orcs were once peaceful before their world began to decay, forcing them to find alternative means and in turn grant Gul’dan full control over their armies and lives. Know that Azeroth was engaged in a lengthy state of peace and harmony—six years wherein its guardian (a mage with infinite power paralleling Gul’dan’s position on the opposite side of the spectrum) Medivh (Ben Foster) remained in his library sanctuary to mold gollums out of clay in the silence. But now war has returned full force.

How Jones sets this story apart is that despite there being nefarious forces on both sides, neither human nor orc is blindly labeled hero or foe. In fact, the protagonists on either side (Travis Fimmel‘s Commander Anduin Lothar and Toby Kebbell‘s Chieftain Durotan) are almost exclusively pure of heart seeking to protect their people from the evils surrounding them. We pull for each knowing there will be conflict and knowing they don’t speak for their respective species. This world is vaster than two men and the film merely opens the forum for their ethics and morals to seep into their kind as the fight progresses. So don’t expect a neat little ending. The credits bring more questions than answers while missions and allegiances start cementing for the future.

We therefore receive two concurrent storylines meant to converge in a bloody battle that may have been lucky to win a PG-13. Because the orcs need a new home, coming to Azeroth was a necessity. But why was Draenor dying in the first place? Was Gul’dan’s Fel harming more than helping? Has anything changed since the war parties leapt through the portal and who is the real enemy? The latter is a valid question for the humans too considering they’ve been blindsided by this invasion. King Llane Wrynn (Dominic Cooper) hopes to rally the troops and do all he can against a stronger adversary with Lothar and Medivh by his side, but what of mage dropout Khadgar’s (Ben Schnetzer) findings that someone from Azeroth invited the orcs in?

Suddenly the war explodes, darkness falling onto both sides. The Fel reveals itself as the bloodshed’s true cause, its incorporeal malicious intent controlling these pawns to destroy each other for its own powerful gain. The Fel is the real villain of this story, its insidious nature polluting all who crave it and only when it’s seen as a common enemy can the humans and orcs begin to understand the bigger picture. This is the film’s purpose, to tell of an awakening to this force that’s long since plagued so many. It’s about evil incarnate and the pure at heart left dead in its wake. This is why Durotan seeks alliance with the humans. It’s also why such treason is doomed to fail in such an expansive conflict’s infancy.

Don’t be discouraged that Warcraft refuses to hide that it’s but one story of many, though. Well, be a little worried since its critical drubbing thus far looks to be sealing its fate as unworthy of subsequent entries like another unjustly maligned fantasy adventure in John Carter. But even as a one-shot this opening chapter narrative keeps it fresh and exciting because it’s playing the long game regardless of success. This means that big names on the cast list are able to die to progress the plot. It also allows for tough decisions to be made that go against the heart for the good of the hoard. Love—whether that of a romantic nature or familial—means nothing if the world in which it exists no longer does.

Jones and Leavitt double-down on the Warcraft mythos to embrace its inherent cheese as a serious existential crisis. They treat the material with sincerity and while this will detract non-fans from taking a chance on a fantasy removed from the pedigree of J.R.R. Tolkien or other literary luminaries, it should impress the almost ten million-strong “WOW” subscriber base revering it as such. Players will enjoy the aesthetic from costumes to runes-heavy geometric magic blasts showing intention and process rather than intuition. They’ll also enjoy the faux first-person interactions like an opening one-on-one fight (we’re the orc) or initial Guardian teleportation with Medivh beckoning us into the circle (we’re Khadgar). We fly over Azeroth, shifting from burning village to burning village in a direct callback to the game’s mechanics.

It becomes a ride as a result rather than just another overly dramatic fantasy easily devolving into silliness when the viewer doesn’t give him/herself completely to it. Foster is having the most fun, relishing the transformations his character is given. Fimmel is a close second, his tragic past and present propelling him to be the warrior the humans need. His Lothar cultivates a great sarcastic relationship with Schnetzer’s Khadgar, the boy’s intentions innocent and power yet uncovered. Ruth Negga as Queen and Robert Kazinsky as Durotan’s right-hand Orgrim don’t have much to do, but they do it well (look for expanded roles in the sequel). But the true marvel is Kebbell. Underrated as it is, what he does with a full motion-capture performance as Durotan is emotionally gripping.

Is it what I as a fan of Duncan Jones wanted him to take on as his third film? No. But the fact that he’s able to retain his sensibilities for an intuitive homage to gaming as well as a complex narrative lying in the grey areas instead of purely black and white is commendable and gives Warcraft a fighting chance to be a success regardless of critical vehemence. And if it allows him to make another small-scale sci-fi it’s a success. I wouldn’t mind if he came back to continue this story either because lesser hands will probably make it as redundant as many have already dismissed this installment to be. I’m invested in these flawed characters now and hope to eventually see what comes next.


photography:
[1] Commander Anduin Lothar (TRAVIS FIMMEL) rides a gryphon into battle in “Warcraft.” From Legendary Pictures and Universal Pictures comes “Warcraft,” an epic adventure of world-colliding conflict based on Blizzard Entertainment’s global phenomenon. Photo Credit: Legendary Pictures, Universal Pictures and ILM. Copyright: © 2016 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
[2] (L to R) Young mage Khadgar (BEN SCHNETZER) evokes ancient magic alongside Commander Anduin Lothar (TRAVIS FIMMEL) in Legendary Pictures and Universal Pictures’ “Warcraft,” an epic adventure of world-colliding conflict based on Blizzard Entertainment’s global phenomenon. Photo Credit: Legendary Pictures, Universal Pictures and ILM. Copyright: © 2016 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
[3] Orc chieftain Durotan (TOBY KEBBELL) is the beloved leader of the Frostwolf Clan in “Warcraft.” From Legendary Pictures and Universal Pictures comes “Warcraft,” an epic adventure of world-colliding conflict based on Blizzard Entertainment’s global phenomenon. Photo Credit: Legendary Pictures, Universal Pictures and ILM. Copyright: © 2016 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
[4] Magical guardian Medivh (BEN FOSTER) must protect Azeroth at all costs in Legendary Pictures and Universal Pictures’ “Warcraft,” an epic adventure of world-colliding conflict based on Blizzard Entertainment’s global phenomenon. Photo Credit: Legendary Pictures, Universal Pictures and ILM. Copyright: © 2016 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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