Sunday, 12 June 2016

Review: Warcraft -- Is This The Beginning or The End?

For those unfamiliar with the games on which it is based, Duncan Jones' Warcraft could be an intimidating watch. Throwing its audience in at the deep end of the extensive lore that this series has accumulated over its twenty-two year history, there's no denying that the movie could have tried a little harder to welcome newcomers to its world. Warcraft's story struggles under the weight of a wave of new concepts and terminology that come with relatively little explanation, some sound mixing that leaves numerous lines seemingly inaudible, and a script which even after years in development hasn't been able to rid itself entirely of plot holes.
Nonetheless, in its grandest moments it's difficult not to get swept up in the vast world that Warcraft presents to us, and while flawed it has to be said that this is a far more competent film than the videogame adaptations that have come before -- thanks in part to a talented director with a passion for the source material.

Warcraft tells the story of how the long-waged war between orcs and humans began, with the grotesque creatures opening a portal from their decimated world to ours (the peaceful Azeroth) with plans to conquer it for themselves. Led by the sinister Gul'Dan the orcs begin attacking settlements, taking captives with the intention of eventually sacrificing them to reopen the portal to the orc homeworld. This would let in the so-called orc 'horde', and in the process destroy any and all chance that the humans had of winning this war. Needless to say, the stakes are very high indeed and the film does a good job of keeping the audience engaged throughout its two-hour runtime in spite of its aforementioned story issues.
This can be put down to some likeable leads in the form of Travis Fimmel's Sir Lothar, Paula Patton's Garona and Ben Schnetzer's Khadgar; they are perhaps the most well defined characters of the piece, and it's no coincidence that all three are from the human side of the conflict. While early interviews reveal that Warcraft's intention was to tell a war story that depicted neither side as inherently villainous, it seems hard to imagine that anyone could leave this film rooting for the orcs. Not only do they follow the repulsive warlock Gul'Dan, but they also have a lack of engaging characters with Toby Kebbell's Durotan being perhaps the only exception. The design of the creatures likely doesn't help; attempts were made to differentiate these characters visually, but the absence of strong personalities on the orc side still makes it difficult to pick them apart in a fast-paced action sequence.
That's not to say that the human characters are handled flawlessly, with a subplot about a father and son on our side of the conflict being severely undercooked. Additionally, characters like Dominic Cooper and Ruth Negga's King Llane and Lady Taria found themselves in dire need of development, while Ben Foster's Medivh found his initially intriguing character thrown into incoherence by one of this film's more nonsensical plot twists -- a great shame as Foster's performance was possibly the strongest in the film, but was unfortunately put to waste.
It is quite possible that these characters would be better defined in a director's cut of the film, as reports of many scenes being scrapped to keep the runtime down are given credibility by the abrupt nature in which more than a few of them end.

What Warcraft lacks in character development it makes up for in world-building; while some aspects of this universe would have benefited from further elaboration, it was still enjoyable seeing the many different cultures and creatures on display here. This film successfully conveys the idea that Azeroth is a world that has been lived in for thousands of years, with secrets buried in every beautifully crafted set. Indeed, Warcraft is at the very least a treat for the eyes. While it perhaps leans too heavily on CGI here and there, the meticulously designed sets and costumes are a joy to behold.

With an ending that makes no attempt of tying up the film's many loose ends, it's quite clear that the hope is to turn Warcraft into cinema's next big fantasy franchise. Ultimately, that will depend on whether international box office numbers can make up for the movie's underwhelming prospects stateside. But given the effort that was put into making this movie a faithful adaptation of its much-beloved source material, one could argue that it deserves a second chance at the gold. It's true that Warcraft isn't a homerun for Legendary and Blizzard, but nor is it the disaster that some critics have gleefully declared it.

The plot can lose its footing here and there (something which will be particularly noticeable to those with no prior knowledge of the universe), and the film would have greatly benefited from spending more time defining the characters that make up its ensemble cast. But to say the film is without merit would be unfair. Warcraft's story does hold some exciting moments and there's great potential for the movie's surviving characters to be better served in a follow-up. Indeed, while Warcraft isn't entirely successful in all its aims, it sets up a rich and interesting world with far more skill than a typical video game adaptation; fans of these games and of fantasy in general could leave this feature feeling quite satisfied, and certainly shouldn't brush it off without consideration.


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