I dedicate this review to all the people who are familiar with this franchise, but don’t want to admit it publicly: you know you’re out there. Having played through the original strategy video games, I myself have more than a passing familiarity with the franchise’s densely layered plot arcs…and when I heard a movie was in the works, I had mixed feelings. The first teasers, for one thing, did not inspire confidence.
The verdict? Well, mixed. It’s definitely not as bad as I’d expected, given its critical drubbing on Rotten Tomatoes, but it’s wildly uneven and suffers from a curious soullessness for most of its runtime.
Set several centuries prior to the wildly popular “World of Warcraft” game, the film version of “Warcraft” centers on the flight of the Orcish Horde, led by warlock Gul’dan, out of their dying planet Draenor into the lush human world of Azeroth. (Some have apparently tried to interpret this movie as a Trumpian anti-immigration parable. If you subscribe to that view, please go away, because that’s asinine: this plot line has been around since the ‘90s). Our heroes – human warrior Lothar, half-breed orc Garona, young wannabe mage Khadgar, and legendary sorcerer Medivh – find themselves confronting not only invading orc clans, but also a dark magic (fueled by drained lives) known as the Fel. Swords and sorcery – plenty of both – ensue.
“Warcraft” gets a number of things right. The art design is outstanding, and despite a few (very) poor-quality initial trailers, the film’s CGI and motion capture are really quite good. This isn’t an unqualified plus: for most of the film’s first act, it feels more like a fancy VFX demo reel than a story in its own right. But hey, the orcs look way, way better than you’d expect…and the magic-spell effects are breathtaking. Director Duncan Jones keeps the pace moving along nicely, and the movie never feels like it outstays its welcome. There are also some nice twists and turns that keep the plot from devolving into pure formula.
The movie also has plenty of problems. For one thing, I found the film’s internal logic extremely hard to follow – and I’m already familiar with this series and with this movie’s general plot (I can only imagine how befuddling things would be for uninitiated viewers). More problematically, the film’s use of the Fel concept introduces a frustrating moral incoherence into the storyline. “Not-really-explained dark magic” is always going to be a plot gimmick in films of this sort, but such a device is typically used in a marginally more reflective way. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that Fel energy can possess and corrupt an individual whether or not they’ve done anything to warrant it. Given that this power is (ostensibly) an “evil” force, the film’s frequent use of spontaneous Fel corruption robs the story of any moral urgency. Why is Gul’dan even worth fighting if he’s not actually responsible for his actions? The theme of selling one’s soul for power isn’t a new one, but at least it’s consistent: when tempted by fate, people are likely to make decisions that compromise them. Stripping any sense of responsibility or agency from the equation means that Fel corruption is attributable to essentially random acts of violent magical upheaval – a narrative failure that undermines the movie’s storytelling and betrays the Warcraft lore as a whole.
In keeping with this general amorality – or at the very least, this lack of any casuistic texture – characters display a generally blasé attitude toward massive casualties and collateral damage. No one expresses concern for the victims whose lives are drained to generate Fel energy; both orcs and humans are much more concerned about the fact that the Fel ravages the physical landscapes it touches. Such casual utilitarianism strips the film of its emotional weight, and makes most of the movie feel coldly Nietzschean: why should anyone care about anything, or anyone, in this nasty, brutish world? (A far better movie would’ve left out the Fel entirely, centering the movie exclusively on the cultural clash between orcs and humans and their attempts to forge consensus).
That being said, in the film’s closing minutes, this downward spiral comes to a screeching halt in favor of a genuinely unexpected, and emotionally moving, climactic moment. Viewed holistically, the movie is still a mess – but its conclusion does it a great service.
In some ways, I’m not entirely surprised: “Warcraft” is a pretty thematically threadbare series. From its origins, the franchise has been less an operatic story than a purely visceral experience – as reflected in its saturated color palette, rococo aesthetics, and heavy reliance on high-fantasy tropes. The film captures that essence, but makes no attempt to transcend it; longtime franchise fans will probably be pleased, but mainstream audiences will be left wondering what all the fuss was about.
I enjoyed “Warcraft” much more than I thought I would – and if you too are a semi-closeted nerd, you’ll have a good time. But this series (let’s be honest, there’ll obviously be a sequel) won’t be rivaling “Lord of the Rings” anytime soon.
It’s worth a Redbox rental, but “Warcraft” simply can’t hit the heights it strives so very hard to reach.
Normalized Score: 1.0