The Wax Wings of Warcraft

You know, I want to like you Warcraft, I really fucking do. Honestly, you’re so close. Is there a movie that’s ever been so unabashedly geeky? Another movie that revels in fantasy tropes and names and big-ass magic with no apologies or quarter like you do? A movie that makes the Marvel Studios look like Merchant and Ivory and Lord of the Rings look like Remember the Titans.

Based on Blizzard’s world-famous Warcraft franchise (borrowing most heavily from the original Warcraft: Orcs and Humans game), it’s a film about people with names like Durotan (Toby Kebbell), Lothar (Travis Flimmel), and Orgrim Doomhammer (Robert Kazinsky)! It’s about an evil wizard, Gul’dan (Daniel Wu), who wants to open a portal between two worlds, a portal he builds out of the energy of corpses, and the valiant alliance of Humans, Elves, and Dwarves (mostly humans) who want to stop him! There’s wizards and griffins and rideable wolves, oh my!

While I may not be specifically a fan of Warcraft, I’m absolutely a fan of what this movie is trying to do. Bringing full-throated high fantasy to the screen and using the budgets that are available to the summer blockbuster to do it is an admirable goal, and director Duncan Jones is definitely imaginationally equipped enough to bring the genre to screen.

So, why did I spend most of it yawning and checking my watch to see when I would finally be able to get the fuck home?

To paraphrase Zaphod Beeblebrox, Warcraft is getting ten out of ten for ambition but minus more than a few points for execution.

Honestly, there are some things to like in here. Starting with the unabashed campy love this film has for the material and the fantasy genre. This film feels no need to apologize for what it is or what it’s doing and I kind of like that. For Warcraft fans, this is probably a wonderful film, a huge public embrace of everything they’ve always loved in their own subculture.

The film is divided into two, Alliance (the Human storyline) and Horde (Orc storyline) and the Horde storyline is actually kind of interesting. It’s a use of fantasy as allegory, bringing the debate over the refugee experience as well as the struggles against dictatorial power in difficult times into a big glorious CGI realm. It’s ambitious and actually fairly well-done.

It helps that the technology is some of the most impressive motion-capture I’ve seen in some time. Orcs legitimately come to life in the same way a live-action actor would, particularly noticeable in Toby Kebbell’s performance as Durotan. Kebbell stole the show in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as Koba, and he proves again that he’s second only to Andy Serkis as a motion capture actor here. He communicates emotion in a way that’s simultaneously familiar and completely alien. It’s a marvel to watch.

It’s also a marvel that these CGI characters are legitimately more life-like than literally any single one of the humans. I mean any of them. There are good actors here, but you would not know it given how woefully miscast this group is. I don’t know if it’s the costuming, borrowing straight from the game style, or the performances, but this cast legitimately seems like a group of cosplayers. Everyone looks miscast, all entirely too modern for this ostensibly medieval world

Seriously, it’s distracting how nobody seems to look any sort of part. Suspension of disbelief is challenging enough in a fantasy film without a cast that can’t seem to sell their material.

Because even if they looked the part, it still doesn’t excuse how flat the humans are, considering they take up far more of the running time. Durotan has such dramatic depth that the fact that no one else can find something besides action movie smirkiness or reciting reams of exposition becomes doubly infuriating.

Of course, it isn’t as though the narrative does them any favors. I keep hearing about the fact that this film had 40 minutes cut from it, and while I believe it watching this film, that doesn’t matter. The theatrical cut is the version I have to judge, and right now, it’s a total mess.

Pacing is absolutely dreadful. Warcraft is simultaneously an hour too long and 20 minutes too short. Scenes seem to either cut a few beats before they need to or they drag on a minute past. Worst of all, it seems as though the film has no forward momentum. I mean, I understand that a number of scenes move the plot forward.

But holy shit, even those scenes feel like wheel-spinning.

There’s no urgency, no motion. Throughout the film, I get the goals of our characters, but the timeline, the direction to accomplish is so woefully unclear that no scene feels like it’s pulling me forward. There’s shit happening, and then eventually it stops happening.

Perhaps that’s because worst of all, Warcraft has no core. Like far too many franchise starters these days, it seems to have foolish confidence in the fact that its fans will get it and love the references and that’s enough to get the word of mouth going, the false thrill of intertextuality. But it doesn’t. High fantasy is inherently impenetrable as a genre of storytelling, that’s why it’s a geek thing.

Actually, Warcraft reminds me a lot of John Carter, how director Andrew Stanton had so much faith that the audience still knew that property that he forgot that many people didn’t. It just connected moments and understanding that the fans can find with no core for the general audience to hook into, nothing for the whole narrative to revolve around.

Instead it’s wandering aimlessly around multiple centers. Durotan’s quest to defend his tribe, Lothar’s quest for…defending his king…or maybe finding a place?, Khadgar’s quest to uncover the central mystery, and Garona’s quest to find her place in the world. This is all great for one film each.

However, all of these stories are in this film. It spreads the movie thin, and as a result, a world that should feel rich and lived-in, one that we can dive into, becomes something shallow, where we barely get to dip our toes.

Warcraft dances, flirts, courts the idea of being something really amazing and ambitious and truly deeply impressive. But it’s ambitious and kind of cool at its best moments and woefully thin and just interminably boring at its worst.

Unfortunately, Warcraft spends far too much time at its worst moments than its best.

Grade: D+