Tuesday June 14, 2016

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Film Review: Warcraft

How can I sell you on the Warcraft movie? Let’s try: Warcraft is the most confidently nerdy blockbuster since at least Lord of The Rings. Warcraft is going to drop you right into the tent of an orc clan chieftain named Durotan, who have united with all other orcs under the warlock Gul’Dan to leave their dying world through a portal to Azeroth (which is where the humans and dwarves and elves live), and you are just going to have to keep up. Warcraft is a 160-million dollar video game adaptation that seems to somehow have been made without a single studio note. Warcraft is so crazy.

…that might not have been the best route. Uh, well here’s the big one: you have never seen anything like this on a giant screen. Director Duncan Jones has been working his way up the genre chain since his 2009 indie sci-fi debut, Moon, but when you’re tasked with starting a franchise adapted from a hugely popular property, there’s always the danger of having your vision subordinated to the many other masters the thing must serve. Here, it seems to have only emboldened him. On its simplest level, the script, from Jones and Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond) is about a war between orcs and humans, but this is no Tolkien-and not just because these orcs are technically aliens.

As Warcraft is wrought from gloriously embraced fantasy cliches, the movie takes advantage of the overwhelming fantasy-ness of everything to shape the actual story into something surprisingly sophisticated. We don’t start with the humans, but with the orcs, so we are following both sides of the brewing war, from a wide variety of perspectives: Durotan (Toby Kebbell) is growing skeptical of the leadership of Gul’dan (Daniel Wu), apparent half orc Garona (Paula Patton) is caught between, Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) is a mage sneaking around to find the truth about the humans magical Guardian (Ben Foster), and military leader Lothar (Travis Fimmel) is doing what you’d expect from the movie’s main human, but in such an unusual cadence he seems genuinely and specifically of this movie’s world, and not any other.

This is unabashed high fantasy pouring from the screen: mages teleport to weird marble towers in the sky to look at magical wells and freaky floating black boxes; people talk about things like “the Kirin Tor”; and the THWACK with every wallop of an orc’s giant mace is just, oof. But it’s not what’s in there so much as how. The second scene of the movie is just two orcs talking about the future of their soon to be born child, and that’s the whole scene. And they’re orcs. It’s wild. Because Jones never breaks the tone: there’s never a moment where a character acknowledges how weird the situation is in Azeroth, that’s just how things are there.

You know how in the Marvel movies, the most outlandish moments are always punctuated with little quips and jokes? That’s to keep you connected, both to the character, and to the superhero-filled world: because no matter how crazy a situation gets, Robert Downey Jr.’s very normal human reaction keeps it feeling grounded to us real world-dwelling humans. Since Warcraft doesn’t get to do that, Jones has finds the humanity (orcmanity?), in his characters not by just diving in headfirst. Which doesn’t mean laying on somber talk about how serious and important everything is, but something much trickier: treating each piece of the extremely detailed reality with the same attitudes as the fantasy people who live in it.

It’s such a particular balance to strike that, for all the money and name recognition poured into it, Warcraft‘s core narrative function is built upon a huge risk. Where Marvel invites you in by making characters that seem like us, Warcraft wants you to try to be like them. Needs you to, so if you don’t, this movie will not work. The ridiculously epic score from Ramin Djawadi (Game of Thrones, Pacific Rim) certainly helps, but, no matter how good the movie, that is always going to be a tough sell. And there is the small but inarguable problem of the ending, or more accurately, lack thereof.

But, if you have even a passing interest or curiosity, you should really, really see Warcraft. Not just because it’s the kind of high-budget genre movie I always complain about not existing, but because it makes good on the promise of any kind of fiction: to show how, if you had been born into the story’s particular circumstance, you would be like these people too. Although in this case, maybe you’d be more like these orcs.

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Film Review: Warcraft
How can I sell you on the Warcraft movie? Let's try: Warcraft is the most confidently nerdy blockbuster since at least Lord of The Rings.


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