On Warcraft, bad romance, and the troublesome formula of the modern fantasy epic
Warcraft Universal Pictures
Director: Duncan Jones
Screenplay: Charles Leavitt and Duncan Jones, based on the video game by Blizzard Entertainment
Starring: Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Toby Kebbell, Daniel Wu, Ben Schnetzer, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, Ruth Negga, Anna Galvin and Clancy Brown
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 3 minutes
June 10, 2016
(out of four)
There is no reason why Warcraft can't work. There are many reasons why it doesn't.
Ignore its video-game roots for a moment. On its face, the film is very much in line with the established template of the 21st Century fantasy epic. So much so that, were you unaware that it was adapted from a video-game franchise, it would still seem like exactly the kind of summer movie Hollywood might make. You'd just assume it was based on a fantasy book series or something.
But its surface similarities only obscure, rather than support, its epic ambitions. Even to list everything wrong with the movie would not do its failure justice. There's something beyond normal critical detection, beyond the naked eye, that's simply missing, and that I can't put my finger on. Like one of those unknown unknowns. There's an episode of NewsRadio in which the billionaire mogul played by Stephen Root discovers that his autobiography, a failure years earlier in its original edition, has become a bestseller in Japan. So he takes the version that was translated into Japanese and has it translated back into English, and re-releases it in North America. The result is utter nonsense (see above headline, also the episode's title), something with the basic shape and vaguely recognizable syntax of its intentions, but warped into meaninglessness. Warcraft is kinda like that.
On paper, every element and story detail seems reasonable for the genre. Dark magic, interdimensional portals, kingdoms at war, orcs fighting humans. Romance and savagery. Ornate castles and expansive, mountainous battlefields. But the most direct (if insufficient) way of explaining why it doesn't work is that this is simply not a very good story, with not-very-good characters, punctuated by a lot of not-very-good action. To a certain extent it feels like it's trying to live up to the narrative scope of The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, except all at once, as if impatient to establish its bona-fides. When we get to the end of its two-hour runtime, with all that has supposedly been decided or resolved, we should, presumably, have gotten through an epic's worth of narrative, and done an epic's worth of battle. Instead, it feels like we've only just started to sort things out. Arcs are largely flat (if not nonexistent), the grand gestures mean nothing, the deaths even less.
It could simply be a matter of what's missing. Of the many entities running around this world and the many narrative threads writer/director Duncan Jones tries to incorporate, virtually all of them are ill-explained, or unexplained, or arbitrarily shoehorned in. Case in point: the "romance" between Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel) - the noble military hero of Stormwind - and Garona (Paula Patton), the half-orc taken prisoner by the humans after escaping captivity at the hands of the orcs' despotic warlock ruler, Gul'dan (Daniel Wu). To be clear, we see the romance between Anduin and Garona coming from the start - those furtive glances weren't for nothing - but it never actually develops. They don't even spend much time together on screen, until suddenly we get a big passionate moment presumably meant to be the culmination of pent-up lust or flirtation. But without any real build-up, it reads as a frivolous distraction. (It's not as embarrassing as the similarly misguided romance in Jurassic World - because those two characters did spend a lot of screen time together, only completely devoid of sexual tension - but it's in the same ballpark.)
This kind of sudden romantic attachment is more or less acceptable in, say, high melodrama or screwball comedy - whose emotional logic operates by a completely separate set of rules - but it strikes a particularly bad chord here because, to its credit, Warcraft is so emotionally earnest in its approach to character. The film begins with a quiet scene between our de-facto protagonist and heroic chieftain Durotan (Toby Kebbell, in another strong motion-capture performance after the villainous Koba in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) and his pregnant wife Draka (Anna Galvin) talking in intimate banter and whispers about a pending journey to find their new home. Jones takes care to establish certain emotional cornerstones - particularly with Durotan and the orcs, who are far better-developed than any of the aggressively uninteresting humans - but the patience he shows in that early scene is unmatched for most of the rest of the movie. There are far too many leaps in behavior or logic that spur action or plot rather than reinforce character.
One of the film's big moments is the death of a key character's son on the battlefield. Jones plays it as a game-changing tragedy ... except the son had barely even registered as a character, and the father only marginally more so.
Warcraft is full of such moments - moments that might have landed if there were a more robust story supporting them. For that matter, it's indicative of a trend that pervades the entire production (and likely speaks to the difficulty of wrangling a massive undertaking like this together) - a lot of momentary glimpses at something interesting, unique, that instantly fade away, devolve into something vulgar. Our first major CGI image is a Durotan close-up, and it looks great. That is, when it's not competing against anything else in its environment. But then the rest of the movie's aesthetic reveals itself, and the CGI elements pile on top of one another, and before you know it the whole frame is patchy with animated textures. These may be state-of-the-art special effects, but too many at once - especially when so many are actual characters, rather than backgrounds or visual adornments - causes more problems than it solves.
The action, like the effects, makes a similarly strong first impression, with an opening image - involving just two figures going at each other, like something you'd see in a Western or a postapocalyptic war film - that is striking in its sense of perspective, and sets a distinctly primal tone that, as it turns out, doesn't match anything that comes after it. It's the most baffling thing, seeing such brief impressions of an entirely different movie altogether. A better one, surely. The version of Warcraft we got is one whose reach far exceeds its grasp.