The conflict at the heart of Warcraft isn’t between orcs and humans but rather between director Duncan Jones and the behemoth of a movie with which he must wrestle. Big, expensive and inherently weird, Jones has to serve the masters of Legendary/Universal as well as Blizzard, the creators of the popular video game series upon which the film is based… all while trying to do the kind of nuanced, thematically rich character work that has marked his previous films, Moon and Source Code. That he succeeds at all is admirable. That he succeeds as much as he did is herculean.
Based on the earliest lore of the original strategy game Warcraft (not the modern MMORPG World of Warcraft, which takes place many years after this story), Jones’ movie tells of the first contact between orc and human. Orcs live on the planet Draenor, which has been consumed by the Fel - dark magic wielded by their shaman leader, Gul’dan. He creates a portal from Draenor to the world of Azeroth, a fantasy world that has lived in peace for many years, and he brings over a massive war party to conquer this new land for his people, the Horde.
In a year where the stories of refugees fight for front page news space with celebrity stories, there’s a heart to Warcraft that beats loudly in the present. Maybe that’s part of the reason why I found myself so drawn to the plight of the orcs, and specifically to Durotan, a chieftain who wants to save his people and who recognizes that the Fel will be the death of not just this new world, but all that lives. Utilizing groundbreaking facial performance capture techniques, Toby Kebbell plays Durotan as a man of honor who finds himself unsure of what honor demands of him in this moment - to stand by his leader or to defend his own clan by joining up with the humans?
Durotan is the greatest CGI character yet created. That new facial performance technique allows Kebbel to play the role with true nuance; his eyes are alive and move with the unconscious ease of a living person, and his face makes subtle and barely considered movements. An animator might make a handful of choices on a character’s face in any given moment of acting, but a live actor will make hundreds, and we see emotions flitter and fade across Durotan’s face with the speed of Kebbel’s neurons firing.
That realism is aided by the profound unreality of the orc design. Jones has opted to stick with Blizzard’s cartoonish aesthetic, and the orcs have small heads and enormous hands and feet, big tusks and impossibly large weapons. It takes a few minutes to acclimate yourself to this look, but Duncan does it smartly - after a cold open fight he smashes to Durotan and his pregnant wife, Draka (Anna Galvin), talking in bed. You’re slightly disoriented - these things are so weird looking, so oddly proportioned - but in the end the oddness of the aesthetic allows ILM’s wizards to keep the orcs outside of the Uncanny Valley. Their faces register as real, as soulful, while the rest of them registers as… otherworldly. But you even get used to that, and eventually you’re just in the world of Warcraft.
Jones opts for the immersion technique. The first fifteen minutes of this movie are an impenetrable stream of high fantasy words and names. I can imagine many, many audiences hitting the wall with Warcraft almost as soon as it begins, when Gul’dan sucks the life energy out of hundreds of wailing elf-like prisoners to power a great big green portal in the middle of an all-CGI landscape. Little is explained (although eventually it all comes together) and you feel like Jones has thrown you into the deep end, expecting you to figure out how to swim. That’s a ballsy move for a movie conservatively estimated to cost 160 million dollars.
Starting with the orcs is smart. Not only does it allow audiences to acclimate to this fantasy world, which is different from Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones (although indebted to them) but it also showcases the film’s best stuff up front. The orcs are the heart of the movie, and it’s when Warcraft shifts to humans that the whole thing begins to shake and crack like a poorly constructed building in an earthquake.
As astonishing as Durotan is, and as great as all of the orc performances are, every single human being in Warcraft is woefully miscast. There is not a single actor given the correct role, and not a single one of the actors is able to bring the required gravity and humanity to their roles. Paula Patton, playing half-orc Garona, is so exceptionally bad (and looks so silly) that every time she was onscreen I was torn out of the film. Travis Fimmel is Lothar, a brave warrior who always looks like he’s about to cry, and Ben Schnetzer plays young mage Khadgar in a way that makes me think he shot all his scenes alone on a greenscreen and was composited in. Every time the movie cuts away to the workings of the humans in the city of Stormwind I just wanted to get back to the orcs, who were characters I cared about.
The only human actor who is doing something interesting is Ben Foster as Medivh, the mysterious and reclusive Guardian, who is also the most powerful magic user in the world. Foster’s just completely wrong for the part - he’s got such a modernity to him - but at the same time that wrongness makes him interesting. Foster plays Medivh like an elderly addict trying to stay straight but unable to quite make it stick. The whole performance is just left of center enough to make it intriguing.
The bad casting is a mortal wound for Warcraft, especially considering the condensed and jumbled nature of the screenplay. Jones wrote it with Charles Leavitt, and most of the film’s dialogue is pure exposition, with characters explaining their own backstories or giving infodumps about lore in between recitations of place names that will bewilder all but the most dedicated game players. The scope of the story Jones is telling is too vast for one movie - it’s like trying to tell all of Game of Thrones in a two hour film. You’d be forced to just fly by events, giving characters one scene to brusquely explain who they are before having them do their plot-mandated actions and then die. With better human actors Jones might have been able to milk more from his quick, info-heavy sequences, but he’s not armed with the right tools here.
Which makes the scenes that work all the more impressive. For all of its problems (and the infodump stuff is just the beginning of the problem. The structure of this movie is so all over the place that you’re never sure if you’re almost at the end or if you’re still in act one and Jones, who was so good with tone in Moon, can't make any of the comedic moments in Warcraft work), the script has a thematic ambition that puts to shame other, better blockbusters. Jones is wrestling with a lot of issues in this big, weird movie about orcs and humans, and they’re all issues with which we can relate.
Part of it is the refugee situation - what would you do if you were forced from your home? What would you do when faced with strange peoples in need of help but with ways that are totally alien to you? Part of it is a meditation on fatherhood, with literal dads - Lothar and Durotan - coping with the impact of their decisions on the next generation and figurative dads - King Llane and Medivh - coping with the same. It's about the conflict between survival and tradition, about the question of how much of yourself is it worth losing in order to live on. There are moments of melodramatic beauty dealing with these themes, the kind of broad, sweeping emotional stuff you can only get across when you dare to go big and risk being silly.
But most importantly Jones has opted to make a movie where nobody is the bad guy, or rather where each side has their own bad elements. It would be easy to make an invasion film about humans needing to beat back the orc Horde, but Jones has decided to stick to the spirit of World of Warcraft, where players can choose to be Horde or Alliance. Both sides have their own POV and their own justification for doing what they do, and at the same time both have heroic leaders and also venal leaders who make terrible decisions that send everyone into unending war. There are grey area moral choices made at the end of Warcraft that are mindblowing for a summer blockbuster. You spent the last few years complaining about the lack of stakes? Jones gives you stakes… and then some. It’s all (more or less) true to the lore of the games, but that doesn’t make the double crosses and the sacrifices any less stunning.
And they’re stunning because you see both sides of the conflict. Even though you may dislike every single human walking into the frame you still get where they’re coming from. It’s a difficult balance, and while the movie’s ambition may exceed its grasp in other areas, this is something that Jones gets exactly right. It’s the kind of movie where a massive victory is bittersweet, where the most heroic deed performed in the story makes the hero a traitor and where the promise of sequels is heartbreaking because it means so many died for nothing. That this succeeds is enough to make me dismiss critics who call the film the Battlefield Earth of the 21st century. Is Warcraft a mess? Yes. Is it hobbled by its actors? Yes. Does it have an ambition unseen in a film of this scope since… well, maybe ever? Yes. I would rather watch a filmmaker like Duncan Jones wrestle with this behemoth and pull out strange moments of grace and lose then watch a studio hack turn in a down-the-middle movie that takes no chances.
What is the eventual fate of Warcraft? I’m bad at guessing which movies will become cult classics, but Warcraft has a density that lends itself to the cult canon. It has attention to detail that will clearly reward future viewings. It’s unapologetic in its depiction of magic; Jones opts for truly weird (and I should probably spell that wyrd) manifestations of magic power that are visually unique. On top of that he shows the cost of magic; too often in films wizards are overpowered, but in Warcraft you can all but see the cooldown timer as the mages prepare for their next volley of spells. I can’t say this is a good movie but I kind of love it for its willingness to go all-in on the fantasy. The movie takes no half-measures.
So Warcraft ends up as one of those movies that I cannot say is good - it’s just got too many problems to be ‘good’ in the traditional sense - but it’s a really interesting movie, a movie that is overflowing with ambition and with excitement for the source material. It’s a weird movie, it’s a flawed movie, and it’s a movie that is defiantly trying to do its own thing. It’s a landmark movie in the development of computer generated characters, and it comes across like a case study of the smart, unique filmmaker trying to get his voice through the grinding of the gears of a bigger, more corporate machine. For a movie that isn’t ‘good,’ Warcraft simply works, and as the credits came up I found myself juggling my criticisms of the film with the desire to see just what happens next on Azeroth.