Review: WARCRAFT (2016) – Updated with Video

This review made possible in part through contributors to The MovieBob Patreon.

Good news! After nearly 3 decades of video game movis being terrible because they didn’t respect the actual games at all, we finally have one that’s just as if not substantially more terrible because it reveres the games entirely too much! And now that Goldielocks has had her nibble at the Mama Bear and Papa Bear side of the equation, we should be just about ready for some enterprising go-getter to swoop in all Baby Bear and get things just fucking right – hopefully? After all, the next couple of these on deck are based on Ubisoft franchises; and they’ve never been known to vanish eagerly up the industrial-strength vaccum-like asshole of their own self-important mythological pretense!

Sigh. Yes, WARCRAFT is a colossal, monumental, staggering disaster. 15 or so years from when Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson and JK Rowling jointly planted their flags and kicked it all off, the Geek Age of Cinema finally has its answer to HEAVEN’S GATE (or, if we’re being generous, ONE FROM THE HEART): A film willed into being by a genuine visionary of a filmmaker whose unwavering confidence and utter, unapologetic, deeply-drawn love of the material has resulted in something that avoids being called a simple failure by being so visibly cherished by its makers. Too compelling in its misbegotten grandeur to be dismissed, too grim and determined of its own importance to be called a farce; the only fair description of WARCRAFT is a tragedy.

It can be exhilirating to watch a bad film fail – watching the apotheosis of every shitty, pandering, grim-n-gritty creative decision made in comics over the last 3 goddamn decades crash and burn in BATMAN V SUPERMAN has been, overall, a fucking perverse delight – but there’s no joy or even vindication to be found in WARCRAFT. It’s not just that so many people tried so hard and believed so much in this project that makes its collapse so sad, it’s that all that effort and belief is the main reason why it collapsed.

The fact of the matter is, WARCRAFT is the kind of bad movie that can only be made by fans – because you have to love something – really fucking love it – to the point of all-encompassing blindness to unwittingly yet so effectively smother it to death like this. This is video-game adaptation by way of the dad from THE LEGO MOVIE – a whole game’s worth of stuff that’s supposed to be fun all cragled into place so rigidly that it’s impossible to have fun with it: The characters are so arch the actors can’t move around inside them, the world has been so lovingly recreated you can practically see the museum display-ropes keeping everything from being handled and the dialogue practically chisels itself into the stonework for fear of a single line landing out of place. It’s clear that director Duncan Jones really wanted this to work – to make his mark, do something really different and set a new standard for blockbuster fantasy filmmaking… and geez, do you have to feel bad for this fucking guy, because what he’s managed to do instead is set a new standard for having missed the forest for the trees.

The flaws are baked in right from the get-go: WARCRAFT is, technically, a video-game adaptation… except somebody decided that instead of adapting a story from the games or even setting a new story in the world of the games, the place to start was retelling in pedantic BEAUTIFUL MIND-level detail – the setup of the original game – yes, this essentially an entire fucking movie’s worth of the kind of shit LORD OF THE RINGS blew through in bullet-points in the first two minutes of the first movie, or that STAR WARS wisely consigns to the opening title crawl. Previous video game movies may have failed because they were like watching someone else play the game, but WARCRAFT is like watching someone read the game’s instruction manual.

And that’s some heartbreaking shit, because it’s the kind of bad decision that only a truly lovestuck fan can make, assuming that the mechanics and mythology details are SO damn important that we need to learn every single piece of it rather than skipping ahead to the fucking interesting stuff. Make no mistake: This kind of attention to detail and narrowly-focused worship of the material is the reason that the armor and the weapons and the spells and the Orcs – holy shit are the Orcs amazing looking in this – all look so damn good… but it’s the exact wronginstinct for telling an interesting story.

Especially when the story already needs all the help it can get to be worth telling in the first place. Setting aside that for all its novelty the “World of Warcraft” is basically the same high-fantasy hodgepodge that every other kitchen-sink fantasy realm has aspired to post-Gygax; it’s still pretty astonishing to realize that once the movie is done introducing every location, race, faction, region, sect etc that someone seriously thought we needed two full hours to understand a plot that boils down to: “The Green Stuff Is Bad.”

Fine, it’s mythology… but mythology needs characters we can invest in, and apart from one early scene of an Orc couple just chilling and talking about life (which is probably the first and last moment where the film approaches “good”) there isn’t a single exchange between characters or line of spoken dialogue that doesn’t involve a character introducing themselves, explaining what’s going on, telling us what something is, how it works or where they have to go next. The screenplay is nothing but exposition, and the only thing that’s never explained is why the fuck we’re supposed to care beyond the supposedly edifying novelty of both the humans and the invading Orc army both being basically decent people trying to do right by their families and communities as opposed to the usual black and white morality associated with the genre.

Sadly, since none of these people ever register as actual fucking characters, all of that supposed moral gray area mainly boils down to the Orcs and the humans both being equally stupid; with the entirety of the would-be story tension resting on nobody noticing that the creepy Orc wizard building a giant magic-machine that runs on dead people and the creepy human wizard who fucked-off for a bunch of years and showed up again acting like a goddamn weirdo right when all the bad shit started might be the bad guys!

The closest we get to an actual character is Toby Kebbel as Durotan the Orc, in as much as he has the closest thing to a relatable storyline and because all the actually good stuff in the movie revolves around the Orcs – period. But for the most part we’re stuck with Travis Fimmel as a boring knight, Dominic Cooper as a boring king, Ben Schentzer as a mage and poor, poor Paula Patton struggling not to look stupid with inverted vampire fangs as a half-human/half-Orc lady Garona… who kind of feels like she should be the main character but then… isn’t.

None of these people manage to be interesting because they never get to talk about anything that isn’t tedious worldbuilding or exposition. At one point two characters suddenly seem to be involved romantically, and you could feel the audience come to life for the first time all night as everyone collectively looked at the person next to them and asked “Wait, when the fuck did that happen!?” Worse still, it all builds up to a chaotic climax full of death, betrayal, emotion, tragedy, huge stakes and grand self-sacrificing decisions that feel like they’d be the stuff of legends… if it was even remotely possible to give a shit who the fuck any of these assholes are or what the hell is going to happen to them. Even simply reacting to the ending feels like homework: “Okay, class – is this a sad ending? A happy ending? A cliffhanger? Or did they just run out of time?”

And despite all that, I still find myself wishing I could root for this fucking disaster just because Duncan Jones is so clearly talented and deserving of serious blockbuster clout, but… the most tragic thing about the film is how massively beyond his grasp it turns out to be. Sure, it’s possible taking this specific tone and route may have defeated any filmmaker, but whereas at the least the mostly-CGI scenes involving the Orcs or the (far too few) big scale battles at least look interesting… everything involving the humans or filmed on a practical set is staged and blocked in the most uninteresting ways possible. Everything plays flat, basic and dull, and it’s legitimately depressing seeing such dreary work come from the same filmmaker who brought such masterful command of cinematic language and scene geography to MOON and SOURCE CODE.

WARCRAFT wants to be big. It wants to be different. It wants to the be smarter, deeper, more meaningful breed of Summer blockbuster that explores ideas and asks questions. Unfortunately, the only questions that anyone will be leaving with “What the HELL did I just watch… and how the FUCK did it happen!?”

This review made possible in part through contributors to The MovieBob Patreon.

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