‘Warcraft’ Review: This Movie Could Use a Little Less War and A Lot More Craft
Who is the target audience for Warcraft? Based on the marketing materials, one might assume it’s for fans of Lords of the Rings: A high-fantasy action flick featuring orcs, dwarves, wizards, swords, mystical creatures and a hero who vaguely resembles Viggo Mortensen if you tilt your head just so. One might also assume that Warcraft was made for fans of World of Warcraft, the immensely popular online RPG that shares many of the same characters and basic narrative threads. But after watching Warcraft, a different answer emerges: It’s actually for 13-year-old fans of Power Metal who run D&D games on the weekends and spent their allowance on commemorative replicas of the One Ring.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing — it’s just such a specific thing. While its aesthetic, characters, and creatures are broadly familiar, Warcraft — for better or worse — has its own distinctly strange vibe, one that feels like a film adaptation of an Iron Maiden concept album that doesn’t exist, or a very special episode of Headbanger’s Ball set at a local Ren Faire. You may not particularly enjoy Warcraft, but you kind of have to admire the audacity of its existence.
Directed by Duncan Jones, Warcraft sets the table with a story instantly recognizable to anyone who possesses even a passing familiarity with J.R.R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin (or any old white dude author with two Rs in his name, apparently). With their world destroyed, orcs unite under a nefarious leader who wields a sinister magic known as Fel, opening a portal which allows them to enter — and take over — the human realm. Meanwhile on Earth (or something like it), humans band together under the leadership of a knight in shining armor to combat the mysterious invaders. Between the two is a half-orc, half-human woman with a crucial (and entirely obvious) role to play in their conflict.
Jones is best known for Moon, a small and elegantly simple sci-fi drama that relied on practical sets and the development of a single character who carries the majority of the film on his shoulders. It was essentially the complete opposite of Warcraft, a CGI-heavy film in which character quantity eclipses character quality. Like many of Zack Snyder’s films, the best description of Warcraft would be “much,” though at least the characters in Jones’ film make coherent decisions and there is some levity amid the chaos.
Warcraft is at its most lively and entertaining during scenes involving Ben Foster’s Medivh, a wizard-like Guardian who is equal parts Edgar Winter and Criss Angel. Medivh’s ability to control Fel yields another obvious plot development, made all the more agonizing by how long it takes everyone around him to realize it. Foster’s scenes are increasingly, delightfully bonkers until a weird and convoluted climax involving a golem and a Cronenbergian metamorphosis. And that’s to say nothing of the film’s supremely bizarre third-act cameo. (Yes, Warcraft has its own big-name cameo.)
Unfortunately, Foster is the only actor who really embraces the lunacy of a movie based on a series of fantasy video games. Scenes of the orcs and humans discussing battle strategy are incredibly boring in comparison to watching a heavy-metal wizard in a cloak of raven feathers create lightning barriers. (Although you cannot hear the sound of a guitar wailing in the distance, it seems implied.) Led by the Mortensen-esque Travis Fimmel and a hilariously bewigged Dominic Cooper, the human scenes are like Your Highness without the jokes. Surely there must be a giant bong lurking just out of frame.
The orcs fare only slightly better, with mostly solid mo-cap performances from Rob Kazinsky, Toby Kebbell, Clancy Brown, and Anna Galvin — not that you’d be able to pick any of them out, save for Galvin, who plays the only female orc with any lines. Galvin’s Draka is a warrior so strong and determined that she runs into battle while very, very pregnant, and gives birth to a tiny Shrek as soon as she lands in the human realm. The orc birth happens in the very first scene of Warcraft, setting a pretty high bar for the underwhelming women that follow.
Paula Patton continues her summer of thankless roles as the hybrid Garona, whose green skin and fierce attitude (and name) will inevitably draw comparisons to the superior Gamora of Guardians of the Galaxy. Despite her combat readiness, Garona spends her time getting rescued by men (both human and orc) — even a violent climactic act of heroism is the result of a man telling her what to do. Ruth Negga’s demure queen is the mostly forgettable antithesis to her role as Tulip O’Hare in AMC’s Preacher (in which Dominic Cooper also happens to be her love interest).
With little else to enjoy, you’ll come to anticipate the orc sequences if only for the promise of Daniel Wu’s Gul’dan (which is, sadly, not a brand of orc mustard), a Krampus-like death metal villain with gnarly bones and skulls growing out of his back. He spends a good chunk of the film casually sucking the life out of humans and orcs alike, devouring their souls like ectoplasmic Chex Mix.
Warcraft is more visually competent than some of its big-budget brethren, but its onslaught of animation makes X-Men: Apocalypse look like a David Fincher film in comparison. Jones’ film is certainly more colorful — and more invested in entertainment value — than Bryan Singer’s X-sequel or Snyder’s Batman v Superman, but it still feels like a cartoon made for grown-ups.
And that’s really the biggest problem with Warcraft. At a certain point, it becomes exhausting to sit through another film with CG characters battling CG creatures with CG objects in a CG setting, filtered through a comically large set of 3D glasses. If none of those elements can transcend all that digital rendering to resonate on any meaningful level, then it’s all just colorful, distracting shapes and noise.