Warcraft Review: Keepin’ It Level 100

We live in interesting times regarding the summer blockbuster. It’s an age where almost every film looks like a video game, a series of pixels fighting with another series of pixels. The stories of late are drawn from long gestating franchises or comic book mythologies. The films are getting bigger, yet the pool of sources seems to be smaller, with cinematic multiverses carving out their various niches, pitting imprint after imprint, franchise after franchise, mythology after mythology.

In the ongoing search for new depths to mine there’s the video game film, hardly a fertile ground to provide cinematic wonderment. When you’ve got films like Gravity or Hardcore that embody many of the elements that make gaming compelling, they manage to do so with a cinematically consistent story line. The transition from console to cinema isn’t an easy one, and many have faltered.

So I met with bemusement the news that Duncan Jones, the man behind clever, cerebral sci-fi like Moon and Source Code, would be ushering the mega gaming franchise Warcraft to the big screen. It’s a giant leap in budget (estimates run to about $160 million, or some 32x the budget of his lunar debut), and potentially a stepping stone to other more ambitious films in the future. All that needed to happen here was a successful film, one that made some money back for its investors, providing Universal and its partners money back on investment.

Luckily as a reviewer I don’t need to care about such things, just as I didn’t care while watching John Carter (another unfairly maligned, ambitious film) about its box office potential. I also can’t speak to the gaming origins – unless it’s Rock Band or a Lego plaything I’m just not spending time marching characters around or blasting at my enemies. No, this thing better work as a movie, full-stop, or it’s doomed. 

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And almost despite itself, dammit, it works pretty well.

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What I loved about Warcraft is that it takes itself seriously without being dour or pedantic. Narratively we get a mash of all things Tolkeinian, but to see that as redundant is all the more laughable given the Professor’s proclivity for outright theft from Norse and Old English mythology to informs his particular stories. 

What the film gets right, really right, is that it’s about character rather than action. Quite simply, this is a film that at its heart spends as much time worried about its characters being three dimensional as it does about it stereographic 3D. There isn’t a dark versus light side, but a whole shade of complex relationships and backgrounds.

Yes, superficially it’s about orcs against men, but the film (like the game?) goes out of its way to pay equal shrift to the myriad of sides, crafting allegiances that shift throughout. We’ve got echoes of everything from Lord of the Rings to the book of Exodus at play, with winged Gryphons, sculpted Golems and a (Glenn) Close encounter too boot.

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There’s a slew of familiar faces here, including Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, and Dylan Schombing, as well as a bunch of Orcish creations brought to life by likes of Toby Kebbell, Robert Kazinksy and Clancy Brown. Stalwart Canadian (and sometime Cylon) Callum Keith Rennie gets a thankless task of hanging out by a mystical hottub, with Ruth Negga (sublime in the upcoming Loving film by Jeff Nichols) makes a queenly appearance. We get Ben Foster, chewing scenes like nobody’s business, as Medivh the Guardian of Tirisfal (!), and Ben Schnetzer as Khadgar, the precocious young mage who sees things a bit more clearly than his masters. 

The magical boys seem to have the most fun, while the others battling things out do feel a bit Jacksonian in their look and feel. Again, this isn’t a bad thing, I like having hints of Middle-earth sprinkled through the lens of Azeroth. What makes things chug along is that it’s far more about strategy and character building than just watching things bash one another, and even when it does come to battles big and small the stakes seem to be important and within the scope of the moment.

It’s clear there are loads of echoes here only comprehensible to those well versed in this universe, and I’m completely fine with being ignorant of many of the subtleties (it, again, felt far more inviting than yet another Marvel post credit sequence alluding to some other meta-textual nonsense). It’s fair to say that the last chunk of the film really does little more than move the pieces forward, setting up a series that may or may not ever emerge.

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But as it stands Warcraft does what it needs to – provide a thoughtful, pretty to watch, well-paced character piece about craft alliances, coming to terms with one’s, finding courage with impossible odds and countering powers outside ones control. In another idiom that’s consider a Game of Thrones, shotgunning characters and situations with the illusion that it’s all heading to a culmination. By its very title Warcraft is more interested in process than procedure, it’s about the skill of conducting battle, the gamesmanship and sacrifices that play out rather than the blind appreciation  of the melee. 

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Look at the names behind some of these credits – it’s cut by Paul Hirsch who made Lucas and DePalma’s best work, and scored by Ramin Djawadi who gives Game of Thrones its epic themes, with Gavin Bocquet who gave production design to many of ILM’s biggest shows and Bill Westenhofer who has done visual effects supervision on everything from Babe to Elf to Life of Pi. There’s no corner’s cut here, no need to dumb down things in order to just smash ‘em up. There’s a sense of care, of pacing, of getting things right as the pieces are put into play.

Above all, Warcraft is a lot of fun, giving a sense of the grandiose without falling for its own pretentiousness. Balancing story with action in a way far too few films of this ilk do, it’s a testament to Jones’ craft that he manages to keep all these elements coherent. He balances the need to tell a story of complexity without being hindered by didacticism, provides action and adventure while still making the stakes count. And, yes, it’s all a bit silly, but that’s completely fine – this is summer entertainment that still is nourishing, a storyline drawn from a strategy game that still manages to feel cinematic with a semblance of intellectually nourishing narrative.  It’s an old school epic with new school tech, and at it’s hard it’s a grand old tale that provides a fabulous little fable. 

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