Duncan Jones’ Warcraft is the kind of movie that’ll make a person want to pull out their phone as it screens, just to figure out what in the hell is going on. This is not to condone phone use during movies at all, mind you; it’s a real concern.
After minutes of studio logos and the kind of trembling bass that could break bones, Warcraft opens on the pensive face of an orc. He’s one of many orcs. Oh, and a father expecting a child. But, orcs? Are they like bigger goblins, or misshapen and steroidal human beings with bad dentistry? It’s hard to hear what they’re saying under the gravelly voices and tooth obstructions. This orc has a name, right? It was really hard to make out. Is the “orc” public domain now? Didn’t Tolkien invent that? Anyway, there’s a whole country full of orcs, it would seem, but what’s with the wall of green light these orcs are preparing to walk through? They’re going to another dimension or world via a wormhole? Do they bring peace? Oh, they’re fighting.
And the magic used for the green hole, it’s made up of human souls? And that magic is called “The Fell?” And “The Fell” is controlled by a glowing, Norwegian Viking-looking monster fella by the name of “God-Damn?” Oh, it’s “Gul’dan?” Is this knockoff Stargate supposed to look this painful? It looks like it is. And another thing, those large canines on the orcs’ underbite – do those teeth cut the orcs’ lips a lot? And what poor animator got stuck painting chest hair, and dreadlocks, on these orcs for months? They are computer creatures, yes? Why is so much happening so quickly?
This moaning isn’t meant to sound reductive of fantasy, or of any genre filmmaking, but of creating a universe of “stuff” on film and the care typically needed to do so. And Warcraft is almost impossible to follow, unless of course you live and breathe the games. From the very popular MMO series, Universal brings us Warcraft, a would-be franchise starter that misinterprets “wonder” as “endless, nonstop questions.” It would take some serious magic to keep up with the film upon first viewing. Or several.
Warcraft’s broadly defined spell: Old-time magic with sprinkles of pseudo-environmentalism and “can’t we all just get along” battle parable. Those aforementioned orcs are being led by a demi-god, Gul’dan (mo-capped by Daniel Wu), into human lands to suck up all the natural resources and build little trailer parks made of bones. And fight. With large, anvil-styled hammers. Through long overhead shots that seem to resemble the source games. The heroic orc is Durotan (Toby Kebbell). He’s the proud, expecting father and chieftain that his clan loves and respects. At least that’s what people keep saying. Durotan is morally rich, the large brute with a heart of gold, who takes pause over the aggressive expansion of orc lands.
Then there are human places, with futuristic Detroit car names like “Ironforge” and “Stormwind,” with kings and knights and damsels and griffins and lovingly articulated castle porn. For the sake of ease in characterizing plot, the human hero is Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel). Long-haired, lightly scarred, and haughty like Thor, the man practically screams “stock hero type.”
And now the abbreviated ingredients for this stale, flat, and paradoxically rushed potion: Orcs fight humans. Humans fight orcs. CG battles and trips to mysterious new lands ad nauseum. Wizards. Fireworks shows. Ghosts, maybe? Head chopping. Orc stabbing. Paula Patton with snaggled teeth and green make-up, treated like a Star Trek extra. Consumption of souls. Black cubes. Golems. Hot tubs full of light. Ben Foster playing with magic like it requires internal batteries to be recharged. Armor. Forests. Castles in the sky. And an uncredited cameo from Glenn Close, hiding under a hood. Meaningless losses of life. Abrupt conclusions. A strong sense of over-familiarity, thanks to the genre tropes about fights and clans and what have you. Warcraft 2: Coming Summer TBD Based on Worldwide Profits.
Jones slaves to make something of the material, and to his credit, or rather his profoundly large cast and crew’s credit, the craft is certainly visible in Warcraft. It feels rude not to compliment the hard work of the makeup, costume, production design, and visual effects teams. The orcs in particular, are powered by Industrial Light & Magic, with all the terabytes of imagery and fine-combed details well within Jones’ grasp. From the glistening eyes to the tiny licks of the upper teeth, the orcs feel more human than the real ones dropped in phony places with well-designed props.
But shiny trinkets and finely-crafted trolls do not a film make. Warcraft is so aggressive in its accumulation of content and scale that any narrative arc, or emotional output, beneath the shimmer is hard to find. The story only bridges the battles with meaningless double-crosses and revelations, and consists of the kind of vague sword-and-sorcery stuff done better in untold legions of other stories. Lothar sees the world differently after fighting. Durotan sees the world differently after fighting. It’s near-impossible to find any characterization amidst what is yet another elaborate work of chaos worship. Warcraft wants to distinguish itself as genre fare with substance, but this only applies to its production value. Jones searches for depth within the fray, especially in the case of the otherworldly creatures, and yet the film concerns itself with louder, more throbbing action fitting of a summer tentpole. The mob (or horde, as it’s called here) rules. On the endless race to fight scenes, digital lemmings seize the day in the end.
There was a great, failed sitcom in the ‘90s with Jay Mohr called Action, about studio-level shenanigans. At one point, Mohr’s executive faces disaster as his $150 million summer film does poorly with critics and audiences after he went to great pains to ramp up the stylized violence. The film’s title: Slow Torture. Mohr had a hit on his hands, but realizes he forgot to care about story or something remotely appealing and distinct within an oversaturated market already full of enough bellowing action.
Funny. Warcraft prizes its “breakthrough” digital effects. It has an alleged $160 million budget. And the thunder of visual filmic decoration masks a hollow, hard fantasy, indistinguishable from the rest. Perhaps Jones could put Action on his Amazon Wish List before his next outing.