ByNadia Robertson, writer at
Co-founder of 1931 Productions: a film production company with the mindset of making interesting, stylish and original films regardless of
Nadia Robertson


Genre: Fantasy

PG-13, 123 mins

Director: Duncan Jones

Starring: Toby Kebbell, Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Dominic Cooper, Ben Foster, Daniel Wu

Release Date: 06/10/2016

Some scathing reviews of bold indie director Duncan Jones’s Warcraft are so vitriolic, it’s difficult to recall a time when critics actually still enjoyed the magic of cinema or appreciated the efforts it takes to bring a film to life on the big screen. As a defender of recent films like Fantastic Four and, infinitely more so, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, it’s disheartening to see so many people willing to cast aside all the redeemable qualities of Warcraft, and its achievements in the face of notable shortcomings.

That statement in itself may be enough to make some readers turn away, but hear out the rest of my argument for why critics are having much more fun ripping this film to pieces than they should.

Crafting a demanding, game-based franchise like Warcraft is an inherently, nearly insurmountable task from conception. With heavy pressures from distribution company Universal/Comcast, production companies Legendary and Atlas, as well as from the game’s creators at Blizzard Entertainment, add the dire importance of its need to please an eager fanbase and it’s a miracle the movie was finished at all. As an ambitious director known for creating fearless cross-genre films, Jones aspires to achieve emotional resonance, thematic depth and visual artistry within his well-thought-out works. Yet Warcraft is inevitably a victim of too many hands pulling at the project from start to finish. Regardless, no matter how stretched thin it might be, to condemn the film completely, especially with such bitter contempt, is to ignore its cinematic successes, which there are certainly a handful of.

The film’s opening is a very strong, impactful one. Beginning with a voice-over revealing the current state of war between man and orc, it feels like a typical action-driven blockbuster opening with an expected epic fight sequence. Instead of leading into a large-scale battle, the story then transitions to modern times with a surprisingly refreshing, intimate bedroom scene between orc chieftain of the Frostwolf clan Durotan (Kebbell) and his very pregnant yet determined warbound mate Draka (Anna Galvin), pondering the fate of their son’s future in their dying world Draenor. It’s quite the juxtaposition between the initial sword-fighting scene to a close-up of the expressive face of Durotan as he watches his wife sleep. The fear for his mate and their unborn child’s safety is immediately tangible thanks to the use of profound motion-capture effects. Kebbell conveys his character's inner turmoil through subtle facial acting, which would be lost under heavy practical makeup.

With incredibly emotive eyes, Durotan and his wife beautifully capture the bond of a loving couple, and the parental worries they face in a troubled world. It’s worth noting that Galvin holds her own against Andy Serkis prodigy Kebbell, as their very real performances gracefully emerge through the layers of special effects. Not only does this scene help set up the many plot points, but it also initiates the most powerful emotionally thematic intent of the film. That despite our physical differences, we all strive for unity, happiness, love, acceptance and the hope for a bright future. These ideals are also personified through the orc half-breed Garona (Patton), who identifies with neither species while still striving to satisfy the same basic needs of both. In Warcraft otherworldly creatures are humanized, and the tender depiction of Durotan and Draka’s love solidifies their arc as the heart of the film, a soulful and relatable dynamic between two parents who love each other, their baby and their people.

Unlike in "TLOTR," these orcs are depicted with laughter, joy and heartfelt kinship.
Unlike in "TLOTR," these orcs are depicted with laughter, joy and heartfelt kinship.

Meanwhile, the corrupt and dangerous shaman warlock orc Gul’dan (Wu) wields the dark magic of the fel to open a portal to Azeroth, a peaceful world that has avoided conflict for many years. Gul'dan hopes to send in foot soldiers to Azeroth to mark a path for the eventual takeover by the rest of the Horde. Using this premise as a metaphor for environmental destruction at the hands of mankind, Jones shows a barren wasteland that was once plentiful, but has now been brought to ruin by a power-hungry leader. Through this leader's abuse of natural resources for personal gain, he is responsible for devastation and death. In a sociopolitical statement, Jones explores the unapologetic, continual ruination not only of the land, but also of the people. Their essence is literally drained from them to fuel a deadly system instated by a greedy warmonger. The idea of exploitation is further depicted by Garona’s enslavement for not being purebred.

What follows is a scene right out of Prince of Darkness. Durotan and Draka storm the portal alongside the Horde’s best warriors, in the hope of making it into Azeroth. This is a haunting visual sequence that quickly propels the danger of the situation for both parents and unborn baby.

John Carpenter’s "Prince of Darkness."
John Carpenter’s "Prince of Darkness."

When Gul’dan and his soldiers touch down, Draka goes into labor. It is through this tense scene that Jones takes another opportunity to comment on the exploitation of Draenor’s citizens as Gul’dan scoops up the newborn child, proclaiming him a new addition to the Horde army. It’s a commentary on the conveyer-belt societal mentality of pumping out the next group of future whatevers without questioning their lack of choice in the matter.

From this, the audience is thrown into the human world. As we jump from kingdom to kingdom, it’s difficult not to feel a sense of rushed exposition as characters and circumstances are briskly flown through in order to accelerate the many plot points covered in a short time span. Anduin Lothar (Fimmel), mighty warrior and protector of King Llane Wrynn (Cooper) is introduced alongside other key players, including Lothar’s sister Lady Taria (Ruth Negga), Medivh the guardian of Tirisfal (Foster), and the young mage Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), who has run away from his apprenticeship.

Many critics complain of the overstuffed plotting; that the information is too thick to digest and doesn't allow us to be fully immersed in the world of Warcraft or be engaged by its many characters.

While not wholly disagreeing with this sentiment, there are some wild accusations regarding claims against the script’s inability to deliver distinctive roles and fluid storylines. Perhaps there was an unrealistic initiative to include so many details and an underestimation of the audience's ability to handle such an expansion on the story’s rich lore. But what could be impenetrable to some may not require as much of a reach for others to comprehend the Warcraft universe. There is no denying that a fan of the game will have an upper hand with the mythology, but there is an obvious respect for the source material and a noble attempt at capturing its beloved aspects. Whether it’s accessible to unfamiliar audiences will depend on the viewer’s open-mindedness and willingness to give the film a fair chance before counting it out.

Even going in green, it’s not too difficult to ascertain the plot points or the relationships between characters. One could certainly still enjoy the film even if not every detail of the story is clear. The general setup is efficiently told, but also leans toward a bare-bones allotment of time for information to be relayed. It would have served the film's ambitions to trim some details while shining a light on others. But given the push and pull from the studios, it was surely an arduous process for Jones, both as an independent filmmaker used to having more creative control, and as an avid fan of the game itself.

While Warcraft has been dismissed as a derivative, trite, garbled mess by some, others are able to find the joy and gusto this all-in fantasy film embraces. Capturing the mythical spirit of visual-effects creator Ray Harryhausen’s past works, Jones dutifully establishes a fantastical realm of creatures along with visually stunning vistas. Lothar’s badass gryphon is a highlight as it sores past snowcapped mountains, and additionally Gollum is brought to life in an Easter Egg homage. And the dire wolves look as though they are waiting for Azog the Defiler to join them in battle. The level of digital detail is further complemented by the impressively textured 3D effects, highly recommended for theatrical viewing. It was surprising to not see a special thanks in the credits to Peter Jackson, seeing as Weta was involved in the making of this film.

Despite critics’ accusations of Warcraft taking too many conceptual and visual cues from other films, it’s difficult to judge it so harshly for doing something that almost every other film is guilty of. It’s rare to find movies that are completely unique, as most of them borrow from similar films in some capacity or another. The Lord of the Rings and Avatar seem to reign as the fantasy-film gold standard, though The Hobbit should really take the crown because the early-2000s CGI of TLOTR is starting to show its age.

As undeniably influential as Jackson and James Cameron’s films are, does that mean they’ve got a stranglehold on the entire fantasy realm? Dwarves, orcs, swords, armor, kingdoms — at some point they are going to start looking somewhat similar. The creature design and proportions are unique enough to Warcraft that it feels coherent within its own context yet translates well from the aesthetics of the game.

The special effects in general are quite an accomplishment, with an exciting depiction of the awe-inspiring powers of magic. The incantations produce colorful bursts of light that envelop everything around them. What could easily look cheesy seems full of life and mystery, so much so that not even the characters seem to fully understand the magic’s far-reaching powers.

As far as the practical makeup effects go, Garona’s teeth are no doubt distracting as Patton tries to talk through them; though it’s understandable why the designers made the choice. She needed to look mostly human with mere hints of an orc physique, and the underbite tusks are their defining look, but ultimately her half-breed nature does not translate as it should. Some other orc-like features, aside from tinted-green skin, would have better serviced the character. On the other hand, the special effects used to portray Gul’dan’s use of fel magic is genuinely unsettling in its ravaging effects on a victim’s body.

Draining slaves of their life source, "Dark Crystal" style.
Draining slaves of their life source, "Dark Crystal" style.

Transitioning the story of Warcraft into film form is quite a feat, considering the dense material to wade through. Yet critics damn the film for both its simplicity and overcomplication. The script is flawed yet still on the right path. The goal of trying to create a simple story within a complex universe is the best way to present the film to unfamiliar audiences without the world feeling completely inaccessible to the nongamer. Critic response to this approach makes it seem like simple storytelling equates to lazy scriptwriting. But take something like Ridley Scott’s Legend, where the plot could not be more basic, and still the world the film portrays could not feel more alive and fulfilled.

Avatar has been pilloried for being an alien retelling of Pocahontas, but that didn’t stop it from cementing its unrivaled status of the highest-grossing film of all time. There’s no argument that Warcraft is on the same level as Jackson or Cameron’s works, as their cinematic achievements have set an impossibly high bar for the fantasy film genre. And unlike Jones, neither of these seasoned directors is a stranger to the intense demands of blockbuster filmmaking from eager, hard-to-please audiences. Cameron is a titan, and surely Jackson would agree that tackling beloved film adaptions is its own tricky tight-rope balancing act.

The man himself, director Duncan Jones.
The man himself, director Duncan Jones.

Jones is deserving of more respect for so fearlessly approaching an insurmountable undertaking that has more going against it than most directors would be willing to attach their name and reputation to. Seeing such a project through takes commitment and demonstrates a rare passion that can be lost in translation when attempting to breathe life into such a massive franchise.

For as much of a struggle as it was to please avid fans and studios, Jones still strived to extend a personal part of himself in the film. Thematically there’s more happening than meets the eye. There’s a desire to capture the essence of what makes a game like Warcraft appealing to its millions of players, while also providing newcomers with the simple joy of an immersive, fantastical theatrical experience.

As big a spectacle as the film is, there’s a surprisingly humanistic overlying tone. Mirroring the gamer's ability to experience WoW as either human or orc, the story is told through the eyes of both races, establishing a multiperspective platform on which to bring deeper themes within the content. Unlike a typical war film of good vs. evil, Jones makes a point to honor the openness of the game’s structure by sharing both sides of the conflict. As the dual protagonists grapple with betrayal from both their guardians, it becomes quickly apparent that Durotan and Lothar have more in common than not.

They share the same enemy, and alongside warchief Blackhand (Clancy Brown), Gul’dan’s ruthlessness knows no bounds. Gul’dan’s an imposing villain, and though it would be great to see more of him, it ultimately may have detracted from his mystique. In such a highly politicized era, it’s refreshing to see a story of two very different peoples coming together for the sake of peace against a world-destroying opponent who will go to great lengths to serve his own agenda. Despite their physical and cultural differences, both Durotan and Lothar are two pillars of their communities who feel the burdens of ensuring that the future of their cultures remain intact.

Durotan realizes that Gul’dan’s energy source is literally sucking the land dry and the fel dark magic has twisted his mind. Durotan knows that in order to stop Gul’dan’s power-hungry rampage, he and the humans must come together to affect change, or else all hope will be lost. The king and queen feel this weight, as does Medivh, for they are acutely aware of the looming uncertainty that the future holds. The orcs cherish the importance of passing down traditions, and learning from one's parents and peers is paramount to their longevity. But when Durotan and his tribe see Gul’dan disregarding their common codes, they realize that he regards winning over honor and tradition. He doesn’t have his own people’s interests at heart and readily dismisses their values and way of life. This is when Durotan’s survival instincts shift his allegiance away from his orc leader.

In Warcraft there is a representation of people trying to understand each other’s cultures in an earnest attempt to blend as one peaceful society in a new world. Jones explores the antagonistic elements of each society, while highlighting their capacity to cultivate nonjudgmental heroes willing to see past race. There’s an importance placed on preservation while showing mindfulness that each culture, while steeped in tradition, still has sensitivity to other cultures.

Orcs have the physical capability to crush men, as they are well aware of man’s frailty and marvel at our weakness in the face of their dominating strength. But they respect the need for peace and work together for a common unity in the face of doom. Coming from a race that believes war solves everything, Durotan recognizes the flaw in his people’s mindset.

Progressive in its social equality stance, interracial relationships are portrayed in the film through King Llane and Lady Taria, Garona and Lothar, and Garona’s parents. There’s also an emphasis on love being torn apart by war and societal expectations. Garona’s parents suffer this fate, and King Llane must leave his wife and family to defend his country, as does Lothar and Durotan. Even Medivh has lost his mate when forced to sacrifice his personal life for the sake of duty. The bonds of friendship are also tested as betrayal runs rampant amongst so-called allies.

The film spends time exploring the sociopolitical ideologies of the all creatures involved, while infusing themes of tolerance throughout. Some fantasy films exploit cultural appropriations to make aliens or societies that are foreign to us seem more relatable — Jar Jar Binks' "mesuh" is one such example. Warcraft didn't fall into this familiar trap, as doing so may have alienated some segments of the audience. But as its massive success in China demonstrates, this film was made for everyone. What helps make it resonate for so many people is that although it’s a film centered on war, its humanitarian message is a strong, advocation for the possibility of peace. Durotan sees the wreckage that is left in the wake of war, and believes a compromise without genocide is possible. He tries to rally the support of his clan while convincing his friend Orgrim Doomhammer (Robert Kazinsky) that they should support this new way in order to survive.

There’s a theme concerning individuals struggling to find their identity within a much larger scheme. Durotan comes to terms with his change of allegiance once he realizes Gul’dan’s devastating intentions. Khadgar deserts a program he was groomed for from birth in order to find his own path. Orgrim is forced to make a choice between loyalty and doing the right thing. Lothar’s son strives to step into the role of soldier in the shadow of his father’s greatness. Garona looks to find her place in a world she doesn't fits into.

The heart of the film lies in these difficult choices and the relationships between its characters. Durotan’s newborn gets both a Moses and Superman motif, as his parents try to save him from a dying world while also bearing the great expectation of unifying races and bringing peace to a world ruled by a madman. Like Moses, their baby is sent off on a river and deemed the savior of his people.

There are also strong female characters who are willing to fight to save their children. Draka, in hopes of a better future, so willingly offered her services as a soldier right before she goes into labor. The small blue alien begging Garona to save her poor child. Lady Taria almost knowingly sending her husband to an impossible battle in order to protect not only their children but the children of the kingdom.

The downsides of Warcraft come with the discrepancy of characterization of the orcs and the humans. Because the strongest actors portray the orcs, the human storyline suffers from bias. The humans are just not as compelling and might make audiences wish the whole story was about the orcs — although that would defeat the purpose. There are times when it’s challenging to understand the orcs' dialogue, so a second watch with subtitles would be beneficial. It feels as though it was a calculated decision to cast lesser-known actors for the sake of allotting as much as possible to the VFX budget. If the human parts of the script were more engaging, this wouldn’t have mattered as much.

Yes, the script is weighed down by the forced and explanatory nature of the pacing and dialogue, which was needed to kick-start this sequel-reliant cinematic universe. As a consequence, much of the story is told instead of shown.

Regardless of a wobbly narrative, Warcraft still has a lot going for it and doesn’t deserve the intense hate it’s unfortunately received. Frankly, to deem the film as soulless, as many critics have, just isn’t fair. It’s got a robust score reminiscent of the theme from 300: Rise of an Empire, but is less industrial or aggressive. Game of Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi created a versatile score full of lively tribal beats. There’s also a nod to The Hobbit and Avatar’s themes as well.

Warcraft’s got charisma, and the audience responded very well to the injections of humor. There were big laughs and strong reactions throughout, even a riotous roar of clapping during one pivotal scene. The comedy isn’t over the top; it’s relatively subtle and deliberate. The film is somewhat a hard PG-13 when it comes to violence. The battles are reminiscent The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies, only with fewer beheadings, but gore-fanatics will be pleased to know there's still a lot of thrashing, ripping and smashing.

Orcs aren’t the only ones making minced meat of men.
Orcs aren’t the only ones making minced meat of men.

For the patient among us, Warcraft can be an enjoyable adventure to sink your teeth into. There’s a humanist overtone that presents a perspective from both sides, and the fantasy archetypes are utilized to give real-world weight to the issues at hand. Any good adaptation should translate easily to newcomer audiences, and this film does require active viewing, especially from nongamers. Although it’s not impossible to grasp the general plot, a second viewing might determine whether this film will be more enjoyable on another go-round. With truly unexpected twists and turns and an unconventional ending, the story doesn’t back down from the challenge of making an impact through outlandish characters.

Critics can be downright brutal, unforgiving, and sometimes appear as if they crudely conceive reviews based off clickbait one-liners and meta witticisms. Warcraft has bore the brunt of many cynical opinions, and it’s quite possible that despite competently setting up the next films, the series may end up never getting that promised sequel, à la The Golden Compass. It’s not the best live-action human-crossover fantasy film out there, but Duncan Jones wrestled down a massive beast to produce a daring and fun flick that should at least be given a fair chance. Is it really the travesty it’s been made out to be? Looks like you’ll just have to go see for yourself!

Will you stand with the humans?
Will you stand with the humans?
Or the orcs?
Or the orcs?

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