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Putting the “high” in high fantasy, amirite?

Warcraft isn’t all that bad. It’s a mess, but you can tell there’s a longer and more fully realized movie that Duncan Jones (director and co-writer) had taken away from him to some extent. Maybe the 2 hour and 40 minute version of Warcraft isn’t any better than this, but as is I think this movie feels incomplete.

That said, what’s left is certainly interesting. For one thing, this is a movie that you’d expect to follow the usual formula of nerd IPs, where maybe it’s 20% for the fans and 80% for everyone else. Instead, Warcraft is a movie that, for better or worse, was made by the fans and for the fans. The ratio is more like 70/30 or something. That means its a movie that deeply inhabits the games it sprang from, which can either be a very good or very bad thing for the much-maligned subgenre of videogame adaptations.

I’m not a huge fan of the Warcraft IP but I’ve played some of the games, including World of Warcraft, and picked up enough along the way to enjoy how fully realized this movie is as an adaptation of the IP. I also think that there were a lot of people sharpening their knives over this movie, due to the baggage of videogame adaptations and the way CG nerd IP movies have taken over the box office, even years before it released. That said, I can’t blame anyone for thinking Warcraft is generic, inaccessible, or dull. It kind of is all those things, but it’s also got more to offer if you keep an open mind. This is why my review will largely be in defense of the movie, but we’ll see how that goes.warcraft movie 1

Orc bros 4 lyfe.

I’m told the movie’s story is a significant departure from the canon lore for Warcraft: Orcs and Humans, the first game in the real-time-strategy series. The movie is based on that game, mostly, and the established lore that came later. It features many characters and locations that people will recognize, as well as in-jokes and cameos and references that are a lot of fun to pick out while you watch. However, this never reaches the level of fan service because Warcraft largely takes itself pretty seriously. Probably too seriously.

The orcs are a warlike bestial people who live on a dying world. Though he seems pretty sinister and he sacrifices innocent people (including draenei! did not expect to see them!), their leader Gul’Dan (Daniel Wu) promises them a new world with new people to fight. Durotan (Toby Kebbel), a chieftain of a small clan called the Frostwolves, is skeptical but he is also trying to be a good leader and a good father, leading his people away from death and into life. Kebbel kills it in his second big motion-capture role (he was Koba in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) and he almost single-handedly makes huge stretches of this movie work.

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The human side of the story feels cut down, leaving characters and subplots underserved.

In Azeroth, the humans and their neighbors (elves and dwarves that we see) have been enjoying a time of peace. The kingdom of Stormwind, ruled over by King Llane (Dominic Cooper) and Lady Taria (Ruth Negga), is the first obstacle in Gul’Dan’s quest for domination of the new world. So what’s kind of cool about this set up is that it’s not only a high fantasy war movie, it’s also an alien invasion movie. The orcs travel through a giant heavy metal portal to get to Azeroth in one of the coolest sequences in the movie.

Once the orcs show up, rumors of a new enemy start spreading around Azeroth which kicks off a bunch of mobilizing. For a large part of the movie, the main human characters Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel) and the runaway mage Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) run around the land gathering allies and having arguments about what to do. This is also where the movie starts to feel like it has too much going on and too many characters with not enough time to deal with it all adequately. Messy, in other words. Characters get stilted dialogue, truncated introductions, and vaguely sketched backstories and prior relationships with each other. Meanwhile, every time the movie goes back to the orcs, a glimpse of the more ambitious and significant heart of the story is revealed.

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The orcs never feel cartoony, even when the rest of the movie does.

The orcs have fewer characters and more fully-realized relationships. Durotan has a best buddy, Orgrim (Rob Kazinsky) who has doubts about Durotan’s hope that the humans might help them overthrow Gul’Dan and prevent the Fel magic from ruining yet another world. Draka (Anna Galvin) is his badass wife who is supportive but who also represents, along with their tiny and adorable (though Fel-infected) son, Durotan’s personal stake in his choices as a leader. This is a good mix, and it works really well against Gul’Dan’s corrupt leadership, which is enforced through a very brutal orc called Blackhand (Clancy Brown).

Meanwhile the humans are trying to get their ducks in a row to meet the orc threat and having a pretty tough time of it. The movie should have settled down a bit here and either cut some of the fat off the fantasy land politicking and Adventures of Lothar and Khadgar or committed to them more fully. I would bet that this is where the cut forty minutes hurts the movie the most. Everything on the human side feels more complicated but less compelling, with a lot of rushing around and expository dialogue. Not that the non-expository dialogue is much good. The movie’s dialogue in general is incredibly uneven. I had a hard time picking out a solid quote for the review title and the one I used isn’t even what I’d call solid.

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A lot of people moaning about Fimmel’s performance, but Fimmel gonna Fimmel and I’m glad he was in this.

The dialogue and plot issues are somewhat redeemed by the aesthetics of the movie, as well as a few of the performances. All the orc performers are wonderful, and a few of the humans do their best with a little. The standout there is Travis Fimmel, who infuses a bland character with some depth and quirkiness that may be off-putting to some but kept things interesting for me (it helps that I’m a fan of his). In general, I can see why a lot of people are saying all the human roles are miscast. Most of the main humans feel too young, especially Fimmel who has a 20+ year old son and is not even 40 himself. Cooper and Negga are more fun on Preacher, and Ben Foster is just completely out of place.

Speaking of the aesthetics, though, they aren’t always perfect. Garona (Paula Patton) is probably the most divisive character in the movie judging by reactions and reviews, and it doesn’t help that her gear always looks super fake. Plus her teeth are so white that every time she opened her mouth I thought I was watching the world’s weirdest Colgate commercial. Some of the props are similarly too flashy, ornate, or cheap looking and it undercuts the heightened reality of the movie, where creaky old wood and leather mixes with improbably oversized metal suits of armor. Somehow, the armor works though, and there’s a satisfying bulk to the way the human soldiers look compared to their orc enemies.

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Magic also looks cool in this movie. Very over the top and… magical?

The aesthetics are actually a nice microcosm of the movie’s successes and failures in general. They really reached for it with this one, and I think it’s fair to say that Warcraft is a failure in some sense, but this doesn’t make it a bad movie. It’s a cliche by now to prefer an interesting failure to a movie that doesn’t even try, or is just a run of bad decisions (I’m looking at you, Batman vs. Superman). Warcraft really is trying and when you’re watching the orc stuff, you can see what it’s successes look like. Though the human stuff doesn’t work as well, the ways the orc and human storylines intersect are unexpected and interesting. The movie sold a team-up between Durotan and Lothar, and it totally sets up and undermines that idea with some clever twists and betrayals. This would mean more if there was more time spent on all the characters, or if there were fewer of them, but it remains interesting for a movie that is not afraid to be bleak and to murder its characters to underscore heroism, moral complexity, and the senseless losses of war.

I say this, but there’s probably a good argument to be made that keeping the orc and human storylines so separate hurts the movie even more because there’s no through-line to connect those stories, making the movie feel like a loosely connected array of subplots which sometimes bash together. I think that’s an unkind way to look at it, but I can’t deny that there’s merit to the argument. I think Warcraft is going to be one of those movies where everybody can just agree to disagree on their reactions, since I think it’ll be hard for even the most diehard defenders to ignore the many valid criticisms made by people who didn’t like it. Hopefully there’s a sequel, and looking at the Chinese box office suggests there will be, and hopefully they trust Duncan Jones (or whoever makes it) more the next time around.

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