Sunday, 19 June 2016

Film Review - 'Warcraft'

For anyone who might still be unfamiliar with the Warcraft franchise, a quick glance at the long-running MMORPG, World of Warcraft, might suggest a level of complexity that would have to seem intimidating, and perhaps even unwelcoming, to a new-comer. World of Warcraft is, after all, a game that has been around for over a decade, at this point – and, it has seen a fairly steady stream of updates that have sought to push the game's overarching story-line along. Even before that, there were the three 'real-time strategy' games which began the franchise – with the first, Warcraft: Orcs and Humans, being released in 1994.

Fortunately for new-comers, though, it is this first game that the film turns to for its inspiration – kicking things off with a story-line which, when compared to the complexity to come, actually feels fairly straight-forward. Here, we have the orcs, a war-loving race desperate to flee from a dying world, who invade Azeroth in search of conquest and a new home. The humans of Azeroth, meanwhile, find themselves forced into a desperate war with these savage invaders – fighting to protect their homes, and the people that they love. So, with each side having something very real to fight for, the stage is set for an epic confrontation.

In keeping with the spirit of the video games which inspired it, Warcraft is also a film which makes sure to devote equal screen-time to both sides – even going as far as introducing the audience to the orcish side of the conflict, first. And, this decision soon proves to be the film's greatest strength – as it is here that we meet the film's most interesting characters. From the moment that we are introduced to Durotan (Toby Kebbell) and his wife, Draka (Anna Galvin), the care and attention to detail that went into the creation of these massive creatures becomes obvious. The combination of impressively detailed CGI, with some great performances, serves to make each of them feel convincingly real.

With the film also taking the time for a couple of notable scenes, in order to properly establish their relationship, the pair quickly become the film's most genuinely likable characters, also. They may be members of a savage race of would-be conquerors – but, as the film goes out of its way to make clear, they are also a couple very much in love, and who just want to find a new home for their new-born son.

This trend also continues with each new orc character we are introduced to. As Durotan's second-in-command, Orgrim (Robert Kazinsky) goes through a surprisingly complex arc of doubt and betrayal which does, unfortunately, suffer a bit from receiving so little focus. Blackhand (Clancy Brown) is a character who, despite the importance that he seems to hold, seems to suffer a bit from being pushed into a more conventionally antagonistic role - but, he does have the advantage of being played by Clancy Brown, so he still manages to make a strong impression. Gul'dan (Danial Wu), whose strange Fel magic is responsible for opening the portal that allowed the orcish Horde to escape their dying world, may be a much more straight-forward villainous figure – but, he is also genuinely intimidating in a way that many villains often aren't. And, in each case, the CGI used to bring them to life is very impressive.

By contrast, unfortunately, the film's human characters often feel disappointingly under-developed. As the designated 'heroes' of their side of the conflict, Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel) and Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) each have their moments, of course – with each of them providing some good moments of entertaining banter, and some good action. But, a sub-plot concerning Lothar's difficult relationship with his estranged son feels rushed – and, Khadgar doesn't even have that much. The mysterious wizard, Medivh (Ben Foster), provides some moments of entertaining eccentricity, and some of the film's most impressive displays of magic – but, he remains a frustratingly vague character until toward the very end of the film. King Llane (Dominic Cooper) and Queen Taria (Ruth Negga), unfortunately, aren't able to make much of an impression, at all – not because of bad writing, or bad performances, but simply due to the fact that the film doesn't seem to have time for them.

Finally, caught in the middle of it all there is Garona (Paula Patton), a half-breed slave of Gul'dan who is set free to join with the humans. On paper, Garona is a very interesting character, and Paula Patton gives a performance which does a good job of conveying the unique mix of past trauma and hard-won strength – but, with so much of her screen-time devoted to providing exposition about the orcs to both the audience, and the human members of the cast, her role in the film also seems to suffer, somewhat. Also, while Durotan and Draka needed only a couple of scenes to convince me that they were a couple who genuinely loved each other, the indications we receive of a romantic relationship developing between Garona and Lothar received too little focus to be entirely convincing.

The one odd impression that I had about Warcraft (one which I couldn't shake after it occurred to me) was that watching this film actually felt quite a bit like watching the pilot episode of a promising series. Even before you reach the end of the film (and, even if you should go in with no prior knowledge), it will be very clear that Warcraft is intended to be the first in a long-running series of films – and, in the end, that could be the film's greatest flaw. There are points throughout the film where it begins to feel as though Warcraft is actually more interested in laying the foundation for these future films than it is in telling its own story.

There are, for example, many references to the true source of Gul'dan's strange Fel magic, which hint at a much greater threat than either side of this conflict is truly aware of (something which fans of the video games would already be very familiar with, of course) – but, it is also clear that the true moment of revelation is being saved for the next film (or, the one after). There are also important plot-points, such as Khadgar's strange encounter with a mysterious entity, which receive no explanation, at all.

Director Duncan Jones, himself, has stated that the original cut of Warcraft was actually much longer, with the implication seeming to be that the film was subjected to some fairly harsh editing just before release – and, unfortunately, that does show. Along with the unexplained, or under-developed, plot-points, there is also a rushed quality to much of the film's editing which can, occasionally, make the action somewhat difficult to follow – with the transitions from one scene to the next sometimes feeling jarring and sudden.

So, the film has its share of issues – but, it still manages to be entertaining, overall. Along with the incredible amount of effort that was put into bringing the film's cast of orc characters to life, Warcraft is also a visually impressive film, more often than not. Although, that being said, it's probably worth pointing out that the fictional universe of the Warcraft franchise is almost aggressive with its fantasy elements – it's bright and colourful in a manner that might comes across as almost garish, but which fits with its video-game origins. This also extends to the film's action sequences, and its overt displays of magic. This isn't the restrained sort of fantasy that you had with the Lord of the Rings film – and, that fact alone might act as a deterrent for some members of the audience. If you can manage to look past that, though, then the action scenes in Warcraft could very well end up being another of the film's high-lights (even if there were surprisingly few of them, for a film set around a war).

I'm perfectly aware of the fact that many critics haven't been too kind to this film – but, after seeing it for myself, I would have to conclude that such harsh treatment is unwarranted. For all of its flaws, Warcraft still managed to entertain me – which, as someone who isn't all that invested in the Warcraft franchise (I have fond memories of the 'real-time strategy' games, but my accumulated time playing World of Warcraft adds up to a few hours, at most), is really all that I wanted, or expected.

There are two thoughts that occured to me, after watching Warcraft. One is that I think I would actually be interested in seeing this original, longer, cut of the film that Duncan Jones has mentioned in interview, should it ever be released. The other is that I do actually hope that this film proves to be successful enough to warrant a sequel – because, with all of the ground-work already laid here, a follow-up film does have the potential for significant improvement.

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