Warcraft (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Warcraft (2016)

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The wall between the world of orcs and the world of humans has been broken.  Sinister magics work in the background to ensure the blood is saturated with offerings from each race.  As war looms on the horizon, a small cadre of orcs and humans plot of a way to end the conflict before it escalates beyond their control.

"Why aren't there any good video game movies?"

I've heard some variation of the question ever since Super Mario Bros. made it to cinemas with a terribly intoxicated Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo in tow.  For my part, I'm actually entertained by the Super Mario Bros. movie and wish more artists would take creative liberty with the games they adopt to cinema.  Because the biggest problem with translating games to movies is the removal of player input, which tells as much of the story as any dialogue or graphics do.  What we're left with is the frequently terrible plots of video games, many times warmed over from cinema, and diluted once more back onto the big screen.

Warcraft is a useful case study in how the transition could be successful and is also held back by the debt video game stories have to older artistic forms.  Duncan Jones, a talented hand at direction behind the camera, treats the source material with as much respect as possible while still creating a coherent story.  Video games tend to prize complex lore more so than straightforward stories and Warcraft has legions of text boxes you can peruse to find out about the background of every character or event.  So Jones, who also cowrote the screenplay with Charles Leavitt, pares the lore down to the basic conflict.  There are orcs, there are humans, and they must go to war with one another.

If you want to see a great Ben Foster performance watch Hell or High Water. If you wanna see Ben Foster throw around magic like firecrackers on the 4th of July then Warcraft is for you.

Not bad as far as starting points go but Jones' take on Warcraft has all the issues with fantasy storytelling and only his visual gifts to elevate it.  The majority of fantasy games, and movies, is that their treatment of race borders on insultingly nonexistent at best moving on to broadly racist at worst.  The humans in Warcraft are almost all white, and the brief glimpse we get of the assembled usual suspects of elves, dwarves, and the like are similarly pale skinned.  Breaking Warcraft's plot down to its most basic elements, a bunch of white folks band together to destroy the savage colored orcs that raided their lands.  Warcraft isn't far removed from The Birth of a Nation in this way.

The rest of Warcraft earns The Birth of a Nation comparisons in broad strokes.  The orcs, providing most of the skin color in their clashes with the humans, are falling under the spell of addictive fel magic.  To take the obvious leap, we're watching the good colored orcs go against the bad colored orcs hopped up on evil juice.  This is not evolved storytelling, and not Warcraft's only regressive outlook when we start looking at the way the women are presented.

Those familiar with Warcraft lore might hope for women like Jaina Proudmoore, a powerful sorceress, or Tyrande Whisperwind, a battle-hardened leader of the night elves.  What we get is half-orc Garona (Paula Patton), who brings colorism into Warcraft where racism isn't addressed as she's threatened by a full-blooded orc when she speaks the human's language.  Acknowledging bigoted threats within the enemy race is a priority over the overwhelming whiteness of the human side.  Garona is also an agent for other men and nothing else, leading to an unusual conclusion to her arc when her big victory happens because her male opponent allows it.  The only other notable woman is Lady Taria (Ruth Negga) whose most prominent scenes feature an uncomfortable level of sexual chemistry with her brother Anduin (Travis Fimmel).

In the case of Lady Taria and Anduin, their chemistry is more a byproduct of performances that vary wildly in quality.  Some of them are menacingly effective behind the special effects, like Daniel Wu's work as the evil magic peddling Gul'dan.  Others are weirdly ineffective, such as Ben Foster's work as Medivh, a secretive sorcerer with depths that could have benefited from Foster's touch of unpredictability in dark roles but is otherwise neutered for more magical special effects.  Ben Schnetzer's is downright awful and written with cringe comedy timing as he knocks over things.  I know Schnetzer can be as excellent as he was in Pride back in 2014, but special effects-heavy acting environments can't be navigated well by everyone.

I may have issues with Warcraft's gender and race presentation, but Duncan Jones is still game for some top-notch visuals.

All these ingredients seem primed for Dislike but Jones has many opportunities to show he's still one hell of a director.  The battle scenes sometimes have a primal intimacy to them, the best of which occurs right at the beginning as an orc and human circle one another amid a dead land.  Other moments are simply striking, like a brief cease-fire taking place in a ravine with a mountain perched ominously ahead as a father reaches through a wall of lightning to try and get to his son.  When Warcraft doesn't have to tell a story in dialogue or performance, in other words in cinematic terms, it's aces and Jones does not hold back on the spectacle of watching magical forces collide while Ramin Djawadi's music soars.

The visual accomplishments of Warcraft put it higher on the totem pole than other video game to cinema adaptations (poor Ratchet and Clank).  But the paring down of complex lore to tell a simple story reveals the same race and gender-related issues that plague fantasy overall.  Warcraft has nothing as transgressive as translating Big Bertha from the Mario universe into a strong as hell red leather clad dominatrix.  When those making video adaptations realize they can go beyond the source universe we might have more films worth discussing.  Until then, the issues that plague Warcraft are unlikely to go away.

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Warcraft (2016)

Directed by Duncan Jones.
Screenplay written by Duncan Jones and Charles Leavitt.
Starring Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, and Daniel Wu.

Posted by Andrew

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