I am a fan of Warcraft. I enjoy the lore, I like the characters, I played all the games, I read the mediocre novels so I can’t truly give an impartial opinion on this film but as a genre fan who has seen a lot of his beloved properties turned into cheap tone-deaf movies aimed at unwashed masses, staring at the screen with their dull cow’s eyes as they mindlessly chew the Coca Cola syrup and popcorn slurry out of their feedbags, I can say that Warcraft does things mostly right.
For those out there concerned that the story is too complicated, it’s not. Orcs have invaded the world of Azeroth at the behest of a warlock named Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) who has come under the influence of a demonic magic called The Fel. Gul’Dan has used The Fel to juice up the other orcs, making their skin turn green and their souls corrupted to be more savage and violent. One of the non-green Orcs, Durotan (Toby Kebbell) sees that the path the Orcs are on threatens to destroy this new world as it did their old one and that The Fel is bringing about the doom of the orcish race. Blah blah, the green magic is bad, the blue magic is good, the green orcs are bad, the humans and brown orcs are morally grey.
On the human side there’s a knight named Anduin Lothar (Vikings’ Travis Fimmel) and a young mage named Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) who knows that something is up in Azeroth and enlists the help of the world’s Lord Magic Motherfucker, Medivh (Ben Foster), to stop the invaders. King Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper) and Queen Tulip O’Hare (Ruth Negga) are there too, but there’s nothing too important with them so just acknowledge their existence and don’t worry about it too much. Durotan seeks an alliance with the humans to help kill Gul’Dan and save his people. That’s really all the pertinent information you need.
I’ve seen a lot of hate on the CG and I do not understand it. The griffins look a little fake and occasionally a movement or a facial expression comes across as false but this is a marvel of computer generated special effects. The Orcs feel real, they have a tangible weight and power to them, the facial expressions are amazing and the attention to detail of each little pore, hair follicle, and scar is a thing of beauty. And despite what you’ve heard the orcs look fine onscreen with the humans with the possible exception of their hands which seem a bit too oversized. The scenery is breathtaking and the set design is fabulous. The filmmakers have brought Azeroth to life and for a video game movie to be this ambitious is unheard of.
The fight scenes, while mostly bloodless, are brutal and painful to watch. Characters crumple like paper under orcish war hammers and axes, bones are broken and people are run through with swords and spears. The action is slick and easy to follow and one of the biggest shames is that there’s not more full-scale warfare shown on screen. The fight scenes are nicely spaced so the talky bits never drag too long before we get back to some action and every time an orc joins a battle it’s a delight.
We maybe spend a bit too much time with the humans and that’s largely a problem because the only ones that are really compelling are Lothar and Khadgar, and sometimes Medivh. Travis Fimmel brings a fair amount of charisma to Lothar who just doesn’t have much to do and Ben Schnetzer manages to work past his baby face and comedic relief qualities to make his character more compelling than he deserves to be. You have to understand that this chapter of the lore is pretty underdeveloped, the entire plot and story of the first game famously fit on one sheet of paper so much of the characters’ traits had to be invented from whole cloth.
This is not a problem with the orcs, Durotan has been the subject of a lot of revisionist literature related to the events of the first and second games and his character is very well fleshed out. His story is heartbreaking and interesting, his relationship with his wife Draka (Anna Galvin) is strong and touching and fittingly opens the movie. So it’s really a shame that Durotan gets second billing to Lothar and Khadgar, I get that actual human actors are much cheaper than giant mo-cap monsters but it would make the film stronger if the most developed character was the lead.
In general the Orcish perspective is a lot more interesting because it is a lot more developed through games and novels while the humans’ part in the story has largely remained unchanged through the years of retcons and revisement. The one ace on the human side is Paula Patton as Garona the half-orc who actually gets a the correct ratio of screen time to character depth, she plays her with a good deal of emotion and manages to act around those tusks which should remove any credibility she might have. Garona’s only weakness is a half-hearted attempt at romantic tension between she and Lothar.
While not everything works (the elves who appear briefly look silly as shit and Toby Kebbell’s old man make-up as Archmage Antonidas serves in sharp contrast to how much better he looks as a CG orc) the film is mostly strong. One of the two big problems is that the movie jumps from story beat to story beat in a mad rush to get to the end, Duncan Jones has done a commendable job of making things not feel too disjointed or rushed in spite of this quality but I would’ve liked to actually see more of the orc invasion of Azeroth and less of Lothar’s strained relationship with his son. I’m told about 40 minutes of film was cut and I would love to see a director’s cut edition with the footage added back in to maybe give the story more room to breathe.
The other big problem is the third act. We hit all the rights beats, the characters that are supposed to die do indeed die and things more or less happen as they’re meant to but there’s a bit too much of an attempt to bend the movie into the typical blockbuster framework of a triumphant ending which totally undercuts the downtrodden tone that this portion of the story is meant to have. The movie tries to have its cake and eat it too by having Lothar turn up to kick ass in both big climactic finales, there are too many one-on-one fights (and not the one that should happen, sorry Doomhammer fans you’ll have to wait for the sequel to see him get his due), and the movie ends approximately eight times. And while these eight endings don’t drag incessantly in an “okay they threw the ring in the fucking volcano, I have to work tomorrow, let’s go!” way it gets a bit absurd after a while. I can totally see why the final shot of the movie would be met with scorn but I liked it.
So to recap. The story is great but it focuses on the wrong characters, the movie tries to be a bit too crowd-pleasing, I could stand a couple more epic battle scenes, and some of the CG isn’t perfect. I know it may sound like a lot but I’m just trying to go over the film with a fine-toothed comb and nitpick every little flaw to cover my probable bias. These complaints are minor at best and really don’t serve to take away from the film too much. On the good side the acting is strong save the king and queen, the CG looks great and works very well, the action scenes all work wonderfully, the story and action all flow very well and though the movie is two hours it doesn’t feel overlong or drawn out.
Warcraft has problems but it is easily the best video game movie by a wide margin, a damned good adaptation of its source material, and probably the third-best fantasy property behind The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. There’s some polish that needs to be added for the next one but a lot of the narrative issues will be cleared up just by going into a more mapped-out section of the lore (and yes there will be more, China’s box office has got that covered.) In all honesty you probably won’t enjoy this one as much if you’re not a fan but it is a more than capable blockbuster and I think it will gain in reputation as time goes on.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars