The critical consensus has spoken when it comes to Warcraft, the new fantasy epic adapted from the video game series, and it is dire. With Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic scores circling the drain, it would seem the film is the bust of the summer, a massively overpriced stinker that nobody really wanted (except for China, where the film is setting box office records).
Takes big step back from microphone.
I kinda liked it.
Yes, it’s a mess. Most of it feels adapted from a Wikipedia page. None of the emotional beats land — even the better ones needed a lot more time to build. (There are hints of a much better three-hour film here; then again, there are also hints of a much better 45-minute film here.) And it ends on a pseudo-cliffhanger that ultimately makes it feel like a really expensive television pilot.
But at all times, Warcraft goes big. It goes ambitious. It goes for the crazy when it could simply go for the safe. The film has real narrative stakes, vaguely complicated characters, and a genuine conflict where both sides are a little bit right. It lets itself down in the end with some cheap "slay the demon" antics, but it’s also not afraid to make major changes to its status quo throughout.
So let’s see if we can’t figure out what this movie was trying to accomplish, by reverse-engineering the recipe behind it.
Ingredient 1: 3 parts the Warcraft Wiki
One of critics' most common complaints about Warcraft is also what I liked best about it: The film simply drops you into the middle of a complicated alternate world and assumes you’ll catch up, tossing out weird names (Gul’dan or Lothar) and strange terms ("the Fell," "the Frostwolves") and hoping you'll figure everything out.
I’ll be honest: Unless you are a student of the Warcraft video games — or at least the Warcraft Wiki — there is probably no way to catch everything the film talks about. It’s never immediately clear how its two governments (orc and human) are structured, and lots of the movie's plot revolves around lines of succession and obscure political and religious rituals. If you’re expecting Warcraft to provide explanations for everything, you are going to be sorely disappointed.
But if you can somehow let go and lose yourself in the movie, you’ll realize that understanding every little detail probably isn't necessary. All you need to know is that the Orcish homeland has been corrupted and is collapsing, so the Orcs have invaded the human land of Azeroth. The humans, justifiably, fight back, and that’s that.
Seemingly dozens of characters are caught in the middle of the fray, from troubled warrior Lothar (Travis Fimmel) to mysterious Orc slave Garona (Paula Patton) to the protective wizard Medivh (Ben Foster). They occasionally fall into the "and then X character did Y, so A character did B" of Wikipedia plot summaries, but Warcraft at least makes an attempt to differentiate their hopes and desires from each other.
Hey, if nothing else, the movie made me spend a good hour clicking around on the aforementioned Warcraft Wiki to try to figure some of this out. If you don’t mind your popcorn movies giving you extra-credit assignments, Warcraft might be fun for you.
Ingredient 2: 1 part Game of Thrones mixed with 1 part The Lord of the Rings
Director Duncan Jones (of the much lauded sci-fi films Moon and Source Code) can bring the epic sweep. Toward the end of Warcraft, when the orcs and humans have finally escalated into full-on war, he serves up some visuals that are right out of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings playbook, where the camera glides over the battlefield, surveying all the devastation.
Unfortunately, these shots don't have any emotional core; their only purpose is to look impressive. Jackson’s hidden skill was that he could use his wide shots to highlight the various Lord of the Rings characters we’d come to care about as they navigated the melee. Jones rarely does that.
He’s on better ground when he instead thinks small. Warcraft’s opening sequence follows one man, facing off with one orc, before Jones’s camera pins itself to the orc’s side while the beast rumbles across the wasteland to smash the human with its hammer. It’s a pretty cool shot, and it drives the point of the film home — these two races don’t have to be in conflict, but they are.
And that nods toward Warcraft’s other primary fantasy influence: TV’s Game of Thrones. The film displays a similar lack of interest in following rigorous timelines or making sure it’s only cutting between events that are happening simultaneously.
But it also boasts a refreshing embrace of the complexity of its situation. The orcs really don't have anywhere to go. The humans really don’t want to share their world. There are good and evil characters on both sides. It’s not terribly deep, but it’s at least trying.
Ingredient 3: 1/2 cup of the part of your Dungeons & Dragons session when the dungeon master awkwardly talks about romance
The emotional scenes between humans in this movie are so bad. So bad. In one scene, Lothar loses someone very important to him, but it’s hard to care because the other character is played by an actor who's so distractingly flat that you can’t believe Lothar would be so worked up over the loss.
That scene is followed by one where Garona comforts Lothar, and it seems to exist solely because Jones and co-screenwriter Charles Leavitt thought it was time to have the male and female leads feint toward romance. She nuzzles him while he says, "I have never been in so much pain in all my life," because that’s the way you indicate your characters’ emotional depths.
The orcs fare better, and feature in several scenes that are legitimately intriguing on an emotional level, as Durotan (Toby Kebbell) and Draka (Anna Galvin) struggle to build a new life and raise a family in a culture where warfare and battle are seen as the chief reasons to be alive. All of the emotional subtlety the humans lack, the orcs have, and it’s really weird.
Ingredient 4: 1 tablespoon heavy metal album covers
Jones sometimes bites off more than he can chew — particularly with those massive battle scenes — but for the most part, he seems to have aimed his film toward what might look the most like an Iron Maiden cover, circa 1983.
And it works! Most of the time, Warcraft is pretty fun to look at.
Giant griffins swoop out of the sky with warriors astride their backs. The film’s villain (who’s way too easy to guess) grows stalactites from his face when his true demonic nature is revealed. Dwarves holster pistols called boomsticks, and they have a pleasing heft.
Ingredient 5: 1 teaspoon nerd bro
There’s a scene late in the movie where the king (Dominic Cooper) is riding off into battle, and he tells his tiny son to guard his mother and sister, smiles winningly at his wife (the great Ruth Negga), then completely snubs his daughter. It’s hilarious — or it would be if it weren’t so telling of how little time Warcraft devotes to its women.
This is in spite of having some great actresses playing those women, like Negga and Patton. The movie even centers much of its emotional arc on Patton’s character, then occasionally seems to forget she’s even around, because it needs to spend more time with the wizard bros, the bros going off to war, and the bros ruling both races.
Warcraft occasionally reveals an egalitarian spirit when a woman warrior or two pops up in the extreme background, but c’mon, Warcraft. You know you really want to be…
Ingredient 6: 1/4 teaspoon Mad Max: Fury Road
There is a version of this movie that is 2016’s Mad Max: Fury Road, and it is so close to that instant action classic that I’m a little mad it didn’t get all the way there. If you think back to the most common critical complaint about Warcraft — an unwillingness to explain much of the film’s mythology — that’s also true of Fury Road, which simply drops you into the passenger’s seat of a car and sends you on one wild ride.
But where Warcraft falls short is in the fact that Jones is not as skilled a director as George Miller. Miller eats, sleeps, and breathes action cinema, and even when you’re wondering, say, who the bald weirdoes are that Max is running away from, Miller is keeping you so tightly focused on Max’s every move, and how little room for error he has, that you don’t mind the confusion. It becomes pleasant.
Warcraft lacks that propulsion (and, it should be said, Max’s proto-feminist spirit of inclusion). There are long scenes where the characters talk and talk and talk, and you suddenly realize you have no idea what they’re talking about. And yet there are moments when the film simply takes flight and busts out these crazy visuals that are unlike anything else you'll see this summer. Is it as good as Mad Max? Nah. But its heart is sort of in the same place.
Ingredient 7: A pinch of the original game
I haven’t played a Warcraft game in years and have never played World of Warcraft, but I spotted quite a few fun Easter eggs that fans of the game should enjoy. It’s clear that Jones loves this world. Maybe Warcraft 2 (which is more likely than you’d think, thanks to those China numbers) will better communicate his passion.