Review by Rob Vaux
It’s easy to condemn a bad film for being bad, and before I get much further into this, I must stress that Warcraft is a bad movie. It’s much tougher to ask why a film is bad, but also gets a lot more interesting. This is not just a case of filmmakers who didn’t care or a story that doesn’t work. There are good things here, even great things if you look at them the right way. So with the scathing reviews in and the box office disappointment duly noted, it’s time to dig a tad deeper into Warcraft than just “wow it stinks.” Why does it stink? And why does it stink in the face of such obviously strong potential?
Some movies stink because they don’t care about what they’re putting together. Some stink because they misunderstand the content or can’t form a coherent argument around it. Some fall victim to infighting during the production. And some stink simply because they have great ideas that they can’t show us clearly.
Warcraft falls firmly into that last camp: compelling material in the hands of a talented director who loves it deeply. Unfortunately, he never lets the rest of us in. The story, the characters, the entire affair, it all arrives in the oblique way that assumes we’re familiar with these characters before we sit down to watch it.
If you’re a fan of the beloved video game franchise, that likely presents few problems, and the film presents countless beloved components with the care and attention to detail that only a massively expensive studio tentpole can buy. Indeed, there’s some terrific ideas seething beneath the surface here. The story involves an army of orcs, driven to invade a human kingdom by the slow death of their world, and unaware that the dark magic they rely on may do the same thing to them here. Right away, that sets up a different vibe for a fantasy race usually relegated to hapless minions for the heroes to grind through. Tolkien could get away with it, since he created them. Everybody else needed to find something more interesting to do with them lest we check out completely.
The thing is, Warcraft does, and suddenly what looks like another boilerplate fantasy saga takes on some fascinating wrinkles. It gets better, with grand betrayals, unlikely heroes and seemingly clichéd genre figures who turn out to be much different than you thought. Director Duncan Jones peppers that with some real stabs at mythic resonance, including a messiah put into the river in a reed skiff, fathers avenging sons who died for their cause, and the wisdom to look at your opponent and see yourself reflected back. Jones displays a sure hand with these concepts, and when paired with the enormous potential of the scenario, you can see great things at the heart of it all.
There’s just one problem: the film doesn’t spend a single moment allowing those ideas to breathe. We see them presented as common knowledge without cluing us into the slightest detail. No one likes undue exposition, but Warcraft treats it like a cancer. That’s never a good idea for a fantasy movie, especially when the bulk of your potential audience has never actually played the wonderful game on which it is based. We need the hows and whys filled in before we get tossed into the maelstrom: providing a sense not only of what’s at stake, but why the figures we see on screen really truly matter. To do that, Warcraft needs to present us with a lot more information than two hours can hold. Peter Jackson made the prologues of these things look so easy, but sometimes you’ve got to spend some screen time setting things up, even if it’s awkward or unwieldy.
Without the time to flesh out its story or characters, it all becomes a mash of jumpy edits, poor development, and characters seemingly without a single backstory to their name. The film looks fantastic, and the gravitas with which Jones approaches this material speaks to great things. It even has a go-to character in a renegade orc slave (Paula Patton) who can convincingly ask any question the audience needs answered. But the filmmakers never consider the need for that, and without a reason to care, it becomes so much empty posturing. Fans will love it – my wife did and she’s been playing the game since the earliest days – and I imagine that its success overseas will keep alive the hope that more movies would come. I almost hope they do. I suspect there’s a three-hour director’s cut of Warcraft somewhere that would truly do justice to it: something to bring game’s countless compelling elements roaring to life..That’s just not the movie we saw. A good story poorly told is often worse than a bad story told well. With a bad story, at least you can see how bad it is right away. This one shows you how great it could have been… which just breaks the fucking heart.
(For another opinion, check out Kimberly Trate’s review over at the Sci-Fi Movie Page.)