I’m glad Warcraft exists, imperfect as it is, because Hollywood needs to take its mega-budgets into comparatively weird places from time to time. The result in this case is a big galumphing fantasy epic creating an impressively imagined world in which one could easily get lost. In fact, the filmmakers themselves appear to have lost themselves in it to such an extent that they’ve barely figured out a way to invite the rest of us in. This is the sort of fantasy storytelling that’s vividly artificial – taking style cues from Star Wars prequels’ and Hobbit movies’ sleek digital swooping – overflowing with jargon and unusual names, and with a dense and interconnected backstory that’s, at best, merely hinted. I found myself grateful that the film leans on some standard conventions of the genre, like color-coded good and evil and preoccupations with clans, lineages, and honor, because they were a great way to get my bearings. It’s both too much and not enough, a world whose details remain murky no matter the amount of exposition thrown about, but remains nice to look at in the same way a striking illustration on a genre paperback cover can be.
Based on a popular video game, Warcraft is a respectable effort at translating a clearly unwieldy mythos into something even remotely approaching a coherent two-hour feature film. It takes place in a peaceful kingdom of humans suddenly besieged by a new threat: orcs, shown here as hulking motion-capture performances of toothy muscle-bound giants. Mankind’s neighboring dwarves and elves and whatnots aren’t coming to the rescue, so it’s up to them to fight back the invading hordes. That’s typical fantasy material, but where it gets complicated for the better is in its attention to the lives of the orcs. Not just the mindless monsters you’d find in The Lord of the Rings and its imitators, many have nobility and high ideals, so much so that one principled chieftain (Toby Kebbell) starts to suspect the dark wizard (Clancy Brown) leading them into battle might not have their best interests at heart. This good orc is made a funhouse reflection of a warrior man (Travis Fimmel) who is tasked by the King and Queen (Dominic Cooper and Ruth Negga) to help stop this looming warfare before it gets worse.
That seems easy enough to comprehend, but try to keep up as each new scene adds a half-explained wrinkle. There’s a youthful magic man (Ben Schnetzer, looking for all the world like a LARPer lost on set) who quit his mystical training, but still sneaks around trying to solve the mystery of the orcs’ otherworldly power. There’s a small, tough lady orc (Paula Patton covered in green and sporting fetching tusks) who was a slave of the dark orc, but upon her capture by humans decides to help them with inside info. There’s a wizard (Ben Foster) who lives at the top of a gigantic tower and supposedly protects the land with his spells, although he doesn’t seem to be too concerned about the rampaging armies while he spends his time making a golem. I haven’t even mentioned the smooth-faced young soldier (Burkely Duffield) who desperately wants his warrior father’s approval, or the orc baby revived by the spirit of a deer, the pool of good blue magic, the pernicious influence of the bad green spell called The Fell, the giant eagles and wolves, the wall of lightening, the inky black-and-purple cube Glenn Close is hiding inside, and the towering portal to another realm powered by the souls of countless captives.
It is confusion – a mishmash of accents, intentions, ideas, motivations, tones, and haltingly introduced plot threads – but not for lack of trying. Writer-director Duncan Jones’s previous films, Moon and Source Code, were models of sci-fi clarity in the face of twisty high concepts, so I can only image the difficulty he and co-writer Charles Leavitt (In the Heart of the Sea) had wrangling the source material into shape here. The movie is broad and complicated, expensive and chintzy, deeply serious and exuberantly goofy, convincing and fake, exciting and risible. But it comes by its oddball jumble honestly. Besides, you don’t have to consult footnotes or a glossary to get the gist. Jones is effective at communicating the general thrust of the narrative impulses and gestures, even in scenes that might as well be performed in untranslated gibberish. (Maybe they already are.) The emotional stakes are clear enough from scene to scene, even if they’re buried under layers of gobbledygook, and are prone to shift without warning if that’s where the plot needs to go. Maybe devotees of the game would have better luck making heads or tails of it.
Figures travel hither and yon over the fantasy terrain, speaking in negotiations of grave importance and urgently communicating a flood of exposition. More focused on worldbuilding than building characters, the movie ends up telling convolutions in broad strokes, while the narrative plays out as only a slice of story, beginning with problems already in progress and ending without satisfying conclusions. But what I appreciated about Jones’s approach is the consideration he brings to the conflict’s two sides, even at the expense of denying the action sequences requisite bloodlust. This isn’t a standard good versus evil story. There are amongst orcs and humans alike those who ultimately have to fight against the worst of their own to accomplish peace. It’s a movie about our protagonists desperately trying to avoid war, and we watch as chaos erupts in action sequences wherein characters view the act of picking up their weapons as failure. They do what they must for the good of their people, even if their efforts are doomed to collapse for the movie’s waves of obligatory CG combat. There’s admirable effort in all this unfulfilling chaos.