Wednesday 20 July 2016

Warcraft (2016) - Movie Review

With every passing season, there is a video game movie released to cinemas. Likewise, there is also a flood of people declaring it the worst yet because it seems that the Internet filters out any semblance of perspective and leaves only the bile. While there is some precedent to the notion, as video game adaptations have a pretty failure rate with only one or two notable exceptions (and even then, those are often contested), I will try and let the film speak for itself on this one. I’ll be forced to do so anyway, as Warcraft is a franchise that I have very limited experience with. I vaguely remember playing Warcraft III in a few LAN parties in high school, and of course World Of Warcraft helped give us one of the best South Park episodes ever with Make Love, Not Warcraft, but other than that I’m going into this as I’m sure a lot of filmgoers are: As a casual observer. But even with that in mind, is this film as bad as its already prominent reputation has decreed? This is Warcraft.

The plot: The Orcs’ homeland is dying. In the wake of this crisis, Durotan (Toby Kebbell) and many other Orcs are sent through a magic portal from their world into the land of Azeroth, ruled over by the Stormwind Kingdom. To combat the oncoming Orc threat, knight commander Anduin (Travis Fimmel), bumbling mage Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), half-orc prisoner Garona (Paula Patton) and the reclusive Guardian Medivh (Ben Foster) combine their forces, but it seems that the sides in this war aren’t as clearly drawn as they first thought.

The acting is mixed at best. Fimmel as Anduin only starts to become interesting by the third act, and even then that’s with me assuming his character spent that whole time either drunk or hungover. Patton, and I’m just as surprised as you are that I just happened to pick two films in a row featuring her, is good but only manages at neutral level for most of the time. She works, but it’s nothing noteworthy. Foster, while having a pretty disheartening introduction that immediately gave doubt that he was too young to play the role from visage alone, manages to give a good wizened and conflicted air to the character. Kebbell does a really good job here, managing to nail the character motivation and troubling over his people to the letter. Schnetzer is confined by the bumbling sidekick role he’s been assigned, but over the course of the movie, he manages to sell his character arc better than the writing would have normally allowed. Daniel Wu as the warlock Gul’dan, even without looking at him, gives a very “do not mess with me” impression from his voice; the right fit for a character that is this surprisingly menacing. Glenn Close’s uncredited appearance is surprisingly welcomed and memorable, and Dominic Cooper… well, given the last time he tried his hand at fantasy with Dracula Untold, that and his sidelined character mean that he isn’t all that prominent, which can only be a good thing.

Even knowing what the fantasy genre is capable of thanks to the use of motion capture CGI, I’m still surprised that this film looks as good as it does. Then again, this is Weta Digital we’re talking about here: The existence of the cinematic Gollum on its own shows that these are the go-to guys for this kind of film. The motion capture works at giving the wrestler-built Orcs their own mannerisms, something kept consistent unlike their dialogue’s pick-and-choose approach to broken English (which, after the translation scene, manages to make even less sense), and the design of the Orcs themselves strikes a nice balance between familiar and foreign that ends up skirting the uncanny valley. The cinematography and locale work really help give this place a feeling of immensity, which has been sorrowfully missed amidst the relatively miniature worlds of more recent fantasy films, and the effects work on the magic usage, both regular and the Fell, fits right alongside it and the characters wielding them. The fight scenes are well-shot and paced, even if I kind of wish there was more of them, particularly with the orc challenges. I don’t know how you manage to make Gol’dun more intimidating, but they somehow managed it here.

So, this looks like it has an entire world beyond its frames; but does it feel like that? Well, this is also a bit of a mixed bag. As I said, I know next to nothing about the Warcraft universe outside of a few random bits of terminology, so there’s no assumed knowledge to be had here. With that in mind, the film is all over the place with how it ends up depicting said world, at least through its dialogue. It’s either heavily implied but never admitted to or is buried so deep in insider jargon that it’s easy to get lost in it. However, even with that said, it still feels like there’s a living, breathing world behind all of this. Ignoring the fact that the franchise as a whole even exists, let’s look at this film on its own merits. We have a war depicted between two sides, both from different worlds, and their conflict that ends up involving every other race between them. On those grounds, the film works at being able to fill in the guts of the setting, something that an awful lot of films of late have been unable to accomplish. Even when we aren’t even dealing with a fantastical setting, I’ve still seen films do far worse than this. Not that it is filled all the way in, and like I said the jargonese can get annoying at times, but it gives enough of an impression that there is further story potential here. Maybe a little too much, given the wide open gaps of plot that we are left with by film’s end, but if the sequel does see a release (which, given this film’s financial returns, looks likely), there’s some faith that it will actually be about something.

Beyond the world-building, the film’s writing is incredibly uneven (noticing a pattern yet?). This was co-written by the guy who gave us not only the lump of raw fantasy dough that was Seventh Son but also the sanitised slog of In The Heart Of The Sea, and there are some definite traces of his lack-of-style to be found here. Namely, in how it fails to properly show grey moralities. Director/co-writer Duncan Jones, whom I have all the sympathy for between the venomous response this film has gotten and the unfortunate events that took place during its production, wanted to show a more neutral story than the 'Screw the Horde!' story Blizzard originally cooked up. It starts out well enough on Durotan and his struggles with leading his people away from destruction, but as the story dredges on (that’s another thing; this film is way too long!) and certain character motivations become more defined, it ends up falling to a fairly rudimentary good vs. evil story.

It doesn’t help that the reasons for this smoothing out in-story are of an ilk that is hardly revolutionary, especially with how politically sceptical films have become of late. Not that it all fails as, even with the open ending, the conclusions we get come about from a weirdly complex idea and Medivh gets a moment at the end that manages to redeem his character somewhat, but it still fits into an all-too-familiar slot. You know, when actual fantasy video games like The Witcher and Dragon Age are capable of delivering thematically satisfying stories on their own, I’m starting to wonder why we even need to adapt these sorts of games at all anymore.

All in all, I don’t find this to be nearly as excruciating as the rest of the world seems to. Unless we’re talking strictly in terms of intent outweighing payoff, there’s no way that this should end up on a list of worst video game adaptations. That said, it isn’t the easiest film to like either as it genuinely has a lot of promise in it, most of which isn’t delivered on. The problem is that, between a somewhat lacklustre script and a leaning on knowledge that only fans would recognise, it just ends up being a pretty overlong letdown. Not bad, just disappointing, which some may argue is even worse.

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