Conceptually, Warcraft shines. It is a film that embraces the inherent goofiness of its source material, while taking it seriously. A film that translates game elements and mechanics into plot devices with narrative and visual meaning. A film that attempts real depth. It wants to be the Hollywood equivalent of the Japanese film Princess Mononoke. A high fantasy epic grounded in complex moral and political themes. A film where every character is flawed and in which there are few, if any, real villains. It doesn’t succeed, but by reaching for greatness, Warcraft ends up in exciting and powerful, if troubled, territory.
The film follows the plot of the first Warcraft game: the world of the orcs is dying. To save his people, but also for hidden motives of his own, the warlock Gul’Dan opens a portal to another world, Azeroth, and leads an invasion. As the orc hoard begins to conquer Azeroth, the human king and his men build a resistance, but the difference between friend and foe is blurred as Gul’Dan’s true purpose is revealed.
That is the barest synopsis of the plot. There is an incredible amount of moving parts and characters.The movie has to make every second feed into its ambitious narrative. This results in frantic editing and swift moving from location to location. As a result, entire scenes are characters straightforwardly explaining who they are and what they’ve done. Yet, much still feels missing. I have a passing familiarity with the lore of the games and wondered if someone unfamiliar to the franchise would understand significant portions of the plot. This is a movie with a lot to accomplish and it fails in setting many of pieces up properly.
The tragedy is that Warcraft has complex and satisfying characters with well defined motivations. In such a complicated film, it is a miracle that it manages to juggle conflicting motives with grace. Framing the orcs that side with Gul’Dan and those that fight against him sympathetically while giving multiple human factions and characters convincing motivations is extremely difficult. The film makes these desires grounded and emotionally real. There is a solid foundation of storytelling and human drama at the heart of Warcraft.
However, the film is not able to build on this foundation for two reasons: uneven performances and poor use of emotional space. Firstly, the humans’ performance are often disjointed, tonally disconnected or just plain bad. They are never painful to watch, but the film never builds the emotional momentum it needs to sell its conflict. Secondly, the film is unable to give its relationships and characters the space they need to grow. There are several moments that make narrative sense and should build to heartrending emotional effect, but never do because the film simply hasn’t presented these relationships as meaningful enough to us. The majority of the first half hour is particularly guilty. The editing is quick and often nonsensical, leaving the audience little room to breathe. Once the film settles into its narrative, it is too late for us to truly care about many of the characters.
The story that works is that of the Orcs. The kind of economic storytelling that the movie desperately needs is to be found here. In fact, the first five minutes, which are entirely orc-centered, are a master class in quick, but effective, exposition. That storytelling leads to the film’s most powerful moments. This is helped by the technical fidelity of the orcs. The motion capture technique captures the real, human performance. It is a strange and wonderful thing that I become more attached to CGI characters than their live actor counterparts.
The film’s technical skill extends to the majority of the film. This movie bear hugs the aesthetic of the games and is all the better for it. Humans wear impractically ornate armor. The orc have giants tusks and hulking bodies. The magic is neon colored and mages’ eyes glow. This gives the film a sense of other-worldliness, but also of reality. It allows the motion capture performances to shine, because they are not saddled with the burden of photo-realism. The Orcs almost entirely dodge the uncanny valley. In the hands of a better film, Warcraft would be as revolutionary as Avatar was.
There is a lot to celebrate about this film. The fact that such a weird, personal and passionate film was made out of an obvious cash grab is a wonder. It is not a good film, but it is a special one. One driven by the real desire to create a great story. One grounded in humanity. The critical pan it has been receiving is mostly undeserved. In many ways, it is like Tron: conceptually ambitious and thematically whole with host of structural and performance problems. I suspect that history will be on my side and Warcraft will become the cult classic it deserves to be.