Movie Review: Warcraft
By Ben Gruchow
June 14, 2016
One of the fun little challenges involved in keeping up with an industry comprised of infinite little booms and busts and contractions and expansions of genre - i.e. a film industry with a weekly new-release schedule - is in figuring out whether an emerging genre trend is an outlier or something that appears to be settling in for the long haul. Serial filmmaking is an example of the latter, with story arcs that can no longer be bothered to complete themselves within the miserly stretch of a single film. Medieval fantasy films are an example of the former, with the big outlier being, of course, Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. Those movies aren't ageless, exactly, but they stand out as an example of how full a cinematic fantasy world can be when it's approached from the right [relatively-grounded] angle. By the time The Return of the King rolled around, it was pretty easy to believe that we were in for a sea change in how fantasy cinema would be conceptualized and realized.
And then came the porcine and overproduced Hobbit prequels, Clash/Wrath of the Titans, and many more, and just this past February Gods of Egypt arrived to make sure that the genre was still on life support. And last but not least, Universal and Blizzard arrive to give us Warcraft, and at $160 million, it is a histrionically expensive cross-breed of two genres: medieval fantasy and video game adaptation, and it's tough to tell which one has historically been more maligned and which one has the more fickle audience. And like the desperate garnish on top of a thrown-together stew, this one's also been in turnaround for 10 years or so; once production got underway, the director's wife was diagnosed with cancer. His father was David Bowie. These are not the ingredients that make a creatively fulfilling filmmaking experience, nor portend a creatively confident final product.
Warcraft is not a good movie, but it at least avoids being a total wipeout in the manner of something like Dungeons & Dragons; unfortunately, it also avoids “delightfully wretched”, which is sort of what you want if actually being good isn't in the cards. It succeeds just well enough on the basis of visual effects (the bulk of which are pretty fantastic) and set design to put you in the mood for a real movie, and it's a big enough mess with its pacing and editing to throw you out of each moment over and over again. The kiss of death is its story and characters; they are so simultaneously transparent and jumbled that they almost cancel each other out and leave us with nothing; to witness these individuals execute long stretches of inconsequential utterances and movement is to experience anhedonia by proxy.
There was clearly an impetus here to do right by the source material; the Warcraft IP is, at its best, engaging and snarky mythmaking. That mythology is here, if you really know where to look. This was written by Charles Leavitt and Duncan Jones and directed by Jones, and it appears that so much of their time and effort went into making sure that all pieces were in place synergistically that there was little left over for making the movie work in its own right as anything within shouting distance of dramatic cinema. Here is what I know. There are orcs (the Horde) who have destroyed their homeland and been corrupted by evil; they open a gateway into the unspoiled world of Azeroth and proceed to invade.