Warcraft Movie Review
Fantasy movies, especially high fantasy movies, are a tricky beast. I don’t know of any I would say have truly “succeeded” in capturing the wonder and majesty conveyed by fantasy novels. The Lord of the Rings trilogy of movies being the one exception. Video game adaptations to the big screen have been even more disappointing. So it was with great trepidation that I sat down to see a recent viewing of the video game franchise inspired movie, Warcraft. What I discovered surprised me to the point that I knew I had to write a Warcraft movie review.
Of Orcs and Men
Warcraft is, in part at least, an origin story. But rather than tell us about the origin of a particular character, it sets out explain the source of the great conflict between men and orcs. We start out seeing things from the orc’s perspective. Theirs is a dying land. Deforested and over-hunted, their world has been destroyed by the orcs’ unquenchable propensity for war and conquest (the orcs in this film by the way, are ten foot tall monstrosities who look like they’ve been working out with the Hulk.) But not all orc clans are equally blood-thirsty and one chieftain in particular, Durotar, is more concerned about protecting and caring for his own people than subjugating others.
The leader of the entire orc horde, however, is a different sort. A warlock whose magic is powered by draining life from other living beings (think Dark Crystal) Gul’dan is one of the most thoroughly evil villains this side of Sauron. He cares for nothing but power and increasing the size of the horde. And with their world dying, less brutal orcs like Durotar have little choice but to follow Gul’dan through the dark portal he opens up into a fresh and verdant land, the world of Azeroth.
The races of Azeroth, elves, dwarves, and men, live in a golden age of peace and prosperity. They know nothing of orcs at the beginning of the film. But when towns and garrisons begin falling to an unknown enemy, the warrior Anduin Lothar and the wizard Khadgar set out to resolve the mystery at the king’s behest. Thus is set in motion the inevitable conflict between the physically unmatched, but brutish orcs against the weaker, but more technologically advanced, forces of the Alliance.
Putting the “V” in video games
This is a visually impressive film. The orcs, which are entirely computer generated, are incredibly believable. I’m not a big fan of blurring the lines between traditional bad guys (orcs) and good guys (humans), but it actually works for this movie. And it works largely due to the range and depth of emotion delivered by the special effects team and the vocal performances of the orc actors. If an award could be given to “best performance by an animated character,” (there probably is one, I’m just not up on these sorts of things) Durotar would definitely deserve a nomination. You really do feel for his dilemma. He is a noble, tragic figure, caught between an all-powerful warlock he knows he cannot defeat and his desire to protect and preserve his clan, especially his wife and infant son.
Azeroth itself is beautifully rendered. The cities, castles, towers, forests, and mountains, are breathtaking and vast, giving the feeling of a rich and colorful world with deep history and traditions. You can see why the orcs would want to conquer it and that the free races have a great deal to lose if they do not find a way to stop them.
Here there be heroes
Besides being a feast for the eyes, this film has a surprising amount of depth and heart. The characters in this film make hard choices and suffer terrible loss. None moreso than Lothar, my favorite character in the film. He carries himself with dignity and bravery in every scene. He comes through time and time again as the relentless hero who will fight any enemy, face any foe, and die any death if it would serve his king and protect his kingdom. Heroes like him are few and far between in modern cinema. He is a cross between Aragorn and Boromir, a truly epic hero whose deeds are worthy of song. He may not be quite as eloquent as those characters, but his deeds say more than enough. By the end of the film I wanted to stand up and cheer for this tireless defender of Azeroth.
But as if Lothar were not heroic enough, King Llane, the leader of the Alliance forces, is the greatest, most noble and genuinely good king I have ever seen in a film (I don’t count Aragorn as a king in this regard because he is only crowned at the end of a lengthy trilogy.) Llane’s role is small for the first part of the film, but each time we see him, he consistently makes wise, selfless choices. As the story marches on, his courage and character rise to simply unbelievable heights. His scenes near the end are some of the most powerful and memorable in the entire film.
And that is what I love best about this film. In an age of movies dominated by self-centered narcissists and anti-heroes whom we’re urged to root for and applaud, Warcraft is a breath of fresh air. I truly was not expecting this movie to have so many inspiring examples of bravery, sacrifice, and honor. It’s based off a video game, right? It’s supposed to be all about adrenaline rushes and spattered gore, isn’t it? Thankfully, the answer to both of those questions is a resounding “no.”
Of darker matters
The film is not perfect. The acting performances are spotty at times. Even the CGI isn’t always perfect (I wasn’t crazy about the art direction when it came to the elves.) But what bothered me most was the darker turn some of the scenes took toward the end of the film. These principally involve magical forces at work in the realm of Azeroth. Some of the scenes I thought bordered on the genre of horror. I understand the need to show how dark and terrible the forces are at work here, but by bringing in a demon they took it past where it needed to go. I thought they could have still shown it, but in a more shadowy, less diabolical looking way. In addition, Gul’dan’s evil is given a little too much screen time. They could have down-played it here and there.
Some viewers might have a problem with the powerful role magic plays in the story. It is certainly more prevalent then in films like The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia. But a distinction is made here between the good kind of magic and the darker sort, and the darker sort clearly comes out as something no one should have anything to do with. But the spells do fly fast and furious in several scenes so that is something to be aware of.
Invitation to Azeroth
Warcraft is not The Lord of the Rings. But it is the closest thing I’ve seen to it since those films were released. It’s that good. There is so much heroism and nobility to this film it really is shocking. I should also mention that, unlike the recent spate of superhero blockbusters, there are absolutely zero profanities in this film. Warcraft, by contrast, offers viewers genuine heroes without having to sift through the verbal sewage.
It really is a shame this film got the terrible reviews it did (in America at least, in China it’s breaking box office records.) Because that means a whole lot of people will miss out on seeing a truly great fantasy film. If this film had nothing more than Lothar it would be worth the price of admission. I compared him to Aragorn and Boromir. Let that sink in if you’re a Tolkien fan. I do not throw out such comparisons lightly. But it doesn’t just have Lothar, it has Durotar and Llane and Khadgar (who is awesome in his own way, just to a lesser degree than the others.) It also has gryphons! I forgot to mention that. Fierce, beautiful, glorious gryphons! When’s the last time you got to see that in a film?
The Warcraft movie is a sweeping, stirring piece of cinema. You don’t have to know anything about the video game this film was based on to experience this epic fantasy film. Who knows if there will be another in this franchise so enjoy this one while you can. Consider this your invitation to Azeroth.
For the Alliance!