Warcraft (2016)

Two worlds. One home.

The Warcraft project has become quite renowned for its drawn out history, having been in development for some ten odd years (since 2006) and going through several treatments and re-writes along the way. Delays aside, in its early stages of production the property was handballed over to various high-profile filmmakers, including Sam Raimi, Spider-Man (2002), with Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie) finally seizing the reigns, choosing to captain the video-game-to-film adaptation (a genre with a less than impressive Hollywood track record). And thus Warcraft (alternatively known as Warcraft: The Beginning), has, at long last, found a home on the big screen. Fun fact: at one point even the infamous videogame destroying Uwe Boll made a bid to direct, to which Blizzard Entertainment (the game’s developer and a producer on the flick) denied him the rights, fearful that his god-awful interpretation (and film) would damage the hugely popular MMORPG’s reputation. Good on ya’ Blizzard!

Why so grim, Orgrim?
Why so grim, Orgrim?

For those who know nothing about the Warcraft brand (which launched its first title in 1994), the said is essentially a PC game franchise made up of five core releases — the most popular being World of Warcraft (otherwise known as WoW). In this real-time, role-playing strategy adventure game, competing players command virtual armies (with abilities that range from foot troops and melee to wizardry and necromancy) and battle against rival online or computer-controlled enemies, the story (which is somewhat ongoing) taking place in the fantastical realm of Azeroth — a setting populated by orcs, trolls, elves and man (along with an assortment of other weird and wonderful mythical creatures). So yes, Warcraft is an openly ‘dorky’ game, where characters are given daft Dungeons and Dragons type names and can perform preposterous feats (such as transforming entire armies into sheep).

But over the years, participants have become so enthralled in the zany pastime that it has metamorphosed into so much more. For many, Warcraft has become a way of life, devotees fully embracing the craziness as a form of escapism, welcoming it with open arms (think cosplayers and LAN parties and the stigma that goes with these), this fanatical admiration allowing Warcraft room to mature, the series branching out into novels and other forms of media, which expanded the ever-growing mythology — the fanbase so dedicated and committed to this nonsensical universe that they’d do anything to feed their geeky passion. So with all this in mind, a faithful live-action Warcraft picture was never really going to please the masses, now was it?

A self-professed Warcraft fanatic, Duncan Jones — best known for helming high-concept science-fiction flicks Moon (2009) and Source Code (2011) — has given the diehards a movie they can sink their nitty-gritty teeth into as, with Warcraft, these gaming radicals will feel as though they’re re-visiting an all too familiar place, one they know remarkably well. For everyone else, however, it’s a bit of hit-or-miss approach, a take-it-or-leave it kind of entertainer with a much lower tolerance for the average moviegoer than say, Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) — but despite all its flaws, I fricken loved every wild second of it!

Totes Orcs
Totes Orcs

In a nutshell, the plot — which is based on a story and characters by Chris Metzen — follows a warband of eight-foot-tall monstrous warriors, known as the Horde, who abandon their desolate, dying homeworld of Draenor — a land of ruin and bone — and travel to the fertile and fruitful kingdom of Azeroth, home to the humans, by means of a magic portal. Led by the green-skinned Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) — a ruthless orc fueled by the urge to conquer and destroy — the Horde endeavor to capture human prisoners for sacrifice in order to re-open the said gateway — which requires the draining of lives to sustain itself — in the hope of transporting the rest of their clan to this newfound Eden; the orcs having grand plans to colonize the territory and claim it as their own. But the humans, being so resilient, are not willing to stand by and watch while their domain and people are murdered and conquered, the folks of the peaceful city of Stormwind deciding to take charge and fight back against this foreign threat, one which they know or understand very little about. And thus, an epic feud between two worlds ignites as these opposing races battle for the survival of their people, homes and future, with their very existence and livelihood on the line.

Spellbinding in parts then befuddling (even unintentionally alienating) in others, Warcraft takes its time to fully find its legs. Unlike other fantasy-adventure romps, Warcraft spends little time filling viewers in on the lore of the land, opting to swing straight into proceedings instead — this either being a blessing or a curse, depending on what side of the fence one sits on. Filmmaker Duncan Jones — sharing a screenplay credit with Charles Leavitt, In the Heart of the Sea (2015) — grapples with a myriad of characters, locations, themes and subplots in this ambitious franchise opener, so much so that logic (and certain motivations) often become clouded in the clashing of sterling blues and dusty greens. With that said, however, the narrative it still accessible enough for mainstream audiences to understand, and identify with, even if the overlying storythread (one that centers on the human-orc divide) is slightly derivative as a result.

'Stop poking me!'
‘Stop poking me!’

But don’t get me wrong; there’s still plenty of blockbuster action and some startling surprises to be found (many of which don’t pop up in the film’s advertising campaign), with in-house winks and nods to its gaming ancestor wedged throughout — of which I only understood a mere handful. Interestingly, the script gives equal weight to both the male and female players, with heroes and villains emerging from both sides of the quarreling camps (orc and man) — a similar outlook to the one proposed in Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War earlier this year … minus the #TeamHorde or #TeamAlliance of course.

Love it or hate it, one can’t deny the vast reach and sheer expansiveness of Jones’ sweeping vision which has been wonderfully realized in this theatrical Warcraft rendering; the imagery and visual thrills are simply mind-blowing and are worth the price of admission alone. Lavishly bringing this comic-book style of fictitious tale to life (and in such a vivid, palatable and earthy manner), Duncan Jones — and his team of talented art/production designers and VFX whizz-kids — have skilfully implanted depth, and a sense of realism, into this whimsical otherworldly backdrop — from the rustic orc barracks and lush loaded jungles to the resplendent Azeroth, capital of Stormwind, not a single frame of Warcraft looks or feels artificial. It’s evident that there’s culture and history all around, even if much of this is never explained or explored. And the awe is not just in the sights but also the sounds, the score by Ramin Djawadi, Pacific Rim (2013), further energizing events with its orchestral rumblings, a mix of crashing drums and blaring horns.

Even with their funny-looking pint-sized heads sitting on top of gigantic shoulders, arms and torsos, Jones and his creative band have found a way to somewhat ‘humanize’ these outlandish brutes, whose complex society is rife with conflict. What’s more, each tusked trooper is quite unique in appearance, these orcish behemoths being extremely exhaustive, adorned with ornate plates, jaded guards, chunky footwear, tatty furs and forged weaponry — of the lot, my personal fave is Orgrim (Robert Kazinsky), who wields the mighty Doomhammer. The human’s have been realized in a similar vein, the regal garments, shields and body armor highlighting the splendor of the dazzling city that’s dripping with custom and tradition — an empire that houses villagers, spellcasters, merchants and monarchs.

Watch out. Lothar is a one-man army!
Watch out. Lothar is a one-man army!

Playing along with the utter loopiness, the cast (while generally solid) tackle their roles as if dedicated cosplayers impersonating their much-admired computer-game idols. Actor Toby Kebbell, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), implants a sense of nobility and empathy to the beloved, dreadlock sporting ‘Chieftain’ of the Frostwolf Clan, Durotan, delivering a nuanced reading through some excellent motion capture work. Similarly, Paula Patton, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011), fares relatively well as Garona, the half-orc slave-girl-turned-soldier, even if her baby canines stick out as being distractingly goofy, Patton portraying the only non-digital orc in the entire picture. Strictly from a design angle, Warlock Gul’dan (mo-capped by Daniel Wu) — who’s mastered the formidable art of the jade-glowing Fel magic — stands out as being the most unique and impressive of all the beasties.

Over on the human wing, Travis Fimmel — from television’s Vikings (2013) — gives a sturdy central performance as the steely-eyed Sir Anduin Lothar, the ‘Lion’ of the Alliance, whereas Ben Schnetzer, Pride (2014), brings a mischievous charisma to the character of Khadgar, the young (and often blundering) apprentice mage. Dominic Cooper, Need for Speed (2014), isn’t given much to do as ruler Llane Wrynn, despite being Stormwind’s beacon of hope, and lastly, Ben Foster, 3:10 to Yuma (2007), hams it up as the reclusive dominion protector Medivh, Foster shooting out elaborately staged charms whilst doing his best Gandalf impersonation. Look, it’s cheesy nerdism all round, buy hey, for a flick of this nature … it sure works!

Warcraft is a film with its heart firmly lodged in the right place, Duncan Jones delivering a CGI-plated technicolor canvas of breathtaking scope and scale. In closing, I can safely affirm that Warcraft is not the ‘disaster’ certain critics are claiming it to be, rather, it’s a cinematic high-wire act with first-rate world-building, jaw-dropping special effects and an immersive narrative (even in its routine plotting), that’s loaded with gripping action and legitimate stakes — and thankfully, the door is left wide open for future installments. So, don’t let anyone sell this film short as it truly breaks new ground.

Warning: All players on flying mounts will be automatically dismounted.
Warning: All players on flying mounts will be automatically dismounted.

Destined to give the fanboys (and girls) their nerdy fix, Warcraft is a triumph in every way, bursting free from the shackles of that terrible ‘video-game-movie’ curse. And heck, it’s a film that regular peeps can enjoy, too — that’s if one can surrender to the on-screen silliness and just simply ‘ride with it,’ warts and all. A giddy long-time fan (whom I sat beside at the film’s Melbourne premiere) described the experience as a surreal one, watching ‘such a big part of [her] life come alive’ on the silver screen. So whether you’re batting ‘for the Alliance’ or roaring ‘for the Horde,’ let’s hope those gaming buffs rush out to see this flick in droves, as I (for one) am eager for a Warcraft follow-up — the Lich King anyone?

4 / 5 – Recommended

Reviewed by S-Littner

Warcraft is released through Universal Pictures Australia