Epic Video Game Attacks The Big Screen
DIRECTED BY DUNCAN JONES/2016
JIM TUDOR: As early as Fall of 2013, filmmaker Duncan Jones was hitting the pavement with assurances that his long-brewing adaptation Blizzard Entertainment’s Warcraft would be the first truly great video game-based movie. Is it too late to retract that move?
Granted, the bar of quality in regard to video game movies has always been consistently, alarmingly low. But perhaps this time, there would be hope. Duncan Jones, having only directed two very well-received science fiction films, Moon (2009) and Source Code (2011), shined a bright beacon of hope onto this project, one he has been unmistakably committed to. He would toil on it for years, pushing its much ballyhooed technical side. Photo-realistic armies of gorilla-like barbarian orks dressed in skeletons and chains would be the payoff.
On that front, the vast array of computer generated imagery in Warcraft is quite impressive. There’s a grandiose “muchness” about it that tends come only with an Avatar or Jungle Book type of movie. Both of those films have proven to be massive hits, and the built-in audience of Warcraft gamers would certainly point to another locked-in level of box office success. But will the gamers be willing to put their consoles down and leave the house long enough to check out this adaptation? Should they?
For them, the answer is a solid “maybe”. Bearing in mind that people play games for different reasons than they see movies, if anyone seems likely to appreciate what Jones and company have done with this film, it’s established fans of Warcraft. Not being a fan, or even any kind of gamer, I went in unsure whether Warcraft was only a video game or also a tabletop strategy game. A quick web search indicates that of course it’s both. At one point, the characters gather around what appears to be an elaborate Warcraft game board, complete with small flag-bearing pieces, to plan their upcoming battle. I suppose I knew just enough for this to ring a bell. The iconography and aesthetic of Warcraft, and it’s subsequent more successful follow-up World of Warcraft, is something culturally ingrained. I recognize its influence, and I’m someone with zero pre-existing commitment to it. I went in hoping for another great Duncan Jones film. What I got was a mostly impersonal and loud barrage of world building, world building, and more world building. But world building, as ornate and intricately tended to as this is, does not a good movie make.
ERIK YATES: I also do not play the game, so for me, I was looking to this film to help build the game’s world so that I could get into the factions of wizards, orcs, humans, and the like. And while you are correct that it just kept on world building, it just never built it into a world I could believe in with no gaming knowledge. I kept thinking of Lord of the Rings as I watched this (mainly because both have orcs). Even if you had never read the books, Peter Jackson was able to still build a world you could understand, sort out, and feel empathy for the characters. All of this helped to pull viewers into the story and care about its outcomes.
Here, the endless world building coupled with unexplained backstories and motivations for the characters based on which faction they were in complicated things. Some details were given, just enough to move the story forward and explain what was happening at that moment, but not enough for me to really care about returning to this world to see the broader implications play out. And make no mistake, this is intended to be a franchise. I just don’t think that they will ever get there.
The cast offers no real standout players. Anyone would be hard pressed to recognize the actors anyway, as the men disappear behind their cloaks and beards, the women behind their elaborate wardrobes (in the case of royalty). Everyone else vanish inside of various make-up effects or CGI. In other words, it is just bland. This is not to say that visually the film lacks any spark, but just a comment that you wouldn’t really know who is playing in this film other than to watch the credits. On one hand that is a good thing as it forces you to get past celebrity and focus on the story. But with the story being so forgettable, it might have helped to have a little celebrity gravitas to make up for that fact.
As far as plot… the Orcs world is dying, and with the help of dark magic they open a portal to come conquer the human world (though it is not our world, but one built through the game). This will involve lots of bloodshed of course, so the humans must fight back. Each realm in the human world is protected by a guardian, a sort of localized wizard. There’s also a higher council that oversees it all. There are also half-breed human/orcs who are slaves to the orcs, some giant bird creatures, and more.
When a group of orcs realize that their leader and his dark magic may actually be a threat to them, they must decide if they should unite with the human kingdoms to fight their own kind in order to save themselves.
Ideally, this should weave in a lot of political intrigue, strategic alliances, conflicting motivations, and hard choices. I didn’t feel much if any of that, and the fact that they tried to throw in a love story to be the tie that binds it all together didn’t work for me. It felt forced, and way too obvious. On the whole, this movie fell flat for me in every way, except maybe visually. If they hope that this film creates interest for people to play the game, then it is a failure on that front as well. If they hope that this will appeal to the gaming fan base, then like you said Jim, “maybe”, but I’m not sure that fan base is large enough to bring the kind of box office it will need to have a future.
JIM TUDOR: Thanks for explaining the plot, seriously. This is one of those movies that is that once simple and impenetrable. Muddled screenwriting strikes again.
Like you mention, it’s an elaborate set-up. There’s so much unresolved story at the end of this film, it frankly feels entitled to sequels. Had the film satisfyingly paid off this film’s situations rather than assume we want to be left hanging, maybe, ironically, further chapters would’ve been appealling. (Overseas, it bears the subtitle, “The Beginning”.) As for the beginning of this film, like the original Star Wars, things start right in the middle of the action, and we’re simply expected to catch up on the fly. Both Star Wars and Warcraft share the great editor, Paul Hirsch. Coincidence? At least in this case, Hirsch was skilled enough to get the running time to a merciful two hours. Yet, you know things are wonky at the summer multiplex when a worlds-spanning Lord of the Rings wannabe epic clocks in shorter than the straight-down-the-line horror flick The Conjuring 2, which happens to be Warcraft’s major box office challenger on opening weekend.
I came to Warcraft of two very radically differing minds. On one hand, the trailers presented it as simply the latest loud & violent CGI fantasy-fest. Translation: it looked horrible. (Which at times, it is). On the other hand, I really wanted to see the latest Duncan Jones movie, whatever it may be. (Which I now have). Widespread sympathy and goodwill have been with Jones in this endeavor, no only due to his promising auteur status, but also since he’d lost his father David Bowie earlier this year. From the start, Warcraft has been something many don’t want to see fail. Early internet consensus has pegged the movie as a swing-and-a-miss at best, but like Disney’s John Carter from a few years ago, the unapologetic defenders are already becoming increasingly vocal. Yet, if there’s any trace of personal vision or even a social metaphor to consider on screen, it is buried too deeply.
As you were saying, Erik, an infusion of personality onscreen, celebrity or otherwise, would’ve been most welcome; maybe even a game-changer. As is, we’ve got Travis Fimmel (Maggie’s Plan) as the human lead, never able to find a grounded tone for his character. Paula Patton is more successful as an ork warrior woman, and Toby Kebbell is most effective as the sympathetic ork husband and father, Durotan. Additionally, Clancy Brown chews green-screen scenery as the warmongering villain Blackhand, and Ben Foster is the main wizard guardian mentioned earlier. All, unfortunately, are awash in a tidal wave of mumbo jumbo and death-dealing contrivance.
Warcraft is, if nothing else, is an impressive spectacle on the massive 3D IMAX screen. My own ten year old game-loving son, usually a most forgiving viewer, is merely “meh” on this. That said, the film is a rather bone crunching PG-13, with lots of stabbings and brutality amid the action. It didn’t bother him, but take young children at your own peril.
Jones and his skilled crew have crafted an immaculate war to be a franchise. But unfortunately, they left out personality and spark. The world is built – now it’s the audiences turn to decide if they want to keep playing.