Much has been written about director Duncan Jones’ cinematic adaptation of Blizzard Entertainment’s video game franchise, Warcraft. Beyond all of the lazy comparisons to The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, many seem to dislike Warcraft simply because of its stalwart adherence to its source material. Contrary to that opinion, I believe Warcraft‘s unswerving loyalty to the extremity of its fantastical nature, and the earnest way in which it approaches its thematically complex story, is what makes the film so endearing. Beyond that, on a narrative level, it offers one of the most unorthodox and surprisingly challenging stories in a blockbuster in recent memory. Make no mistake, Warcraft is the most fantastical fantasy property we have seen for quite some time: the orcs are hulking monsters, wizards shoot blue bolts coruscating with energy, mystics’ eyes glow with otherworldly light, elves sport foot-long ears, and knights ride griffons into battle. However, beneath that extremity is a tragedy that explores the meeting of two very different cultures, both motivated by fear. This fear drives them to mistrust, betrayal, and violence. The heroes of Warcraft attempt to bridge this gap and push past desperation and xenophobia to find sanity and fellowship in a time of madness. The result, to Warcraft’s credit, is not what you’d expect.
The story begins with an ending. The world of Draenor is dying. An influx of dark magic has destabilized the land, causing its inhabitants to seek a new home. In order to save their race, the orc tribes have united under the guidance of the warlock Gul’dan, whose life-powered magic, called “the Fel,” allows him to open a portal to Azeroth, a world populated by humans, dwarves, elves, and more. However, Gul’dan only has enough power to allow a relatively small war party to pass through the portal. This group shall serve as a ranging party whose purpose is two-fold: 1) to construct a great gate that will serve as the Dark Portal through which the rest of Gul’dan’s horde will pass and 2) collect prisoners from Azeroth’s native peoples so that Gul’dan can siphon their life-force to power the Dark Portal.
Among this ranging orc war party is the Frostwolf Clan, led by their Chieftain, Durotan, and his lieutenant and old friend, Orgrim Doomhammer. After passing through the portal, the orcs begin to raid the countryside, collecting prisoners for Gul’dan’s portal. Despite Durotan and Orgrim’s desire for the orc race to continue, Gul’dan’s slash-and-burn crusade sits poorly with them. Durotan in particular is an adherent to the tenants laid down by his orcish ancestors: strength and honor. Pillaging villages full of unarmed innocents speaks to neither of those ideals. Durotan’s partner, Draka, has also recently given birth to a son, further adding to Durotan’s anxiety about the uncertain future of his race.
As Durotan’s already tenuous loyalty to Gul’dan begins to fray, in the human kingdom, Anduin Lothar, leader of Azeroth’s armies, faces his own challenges. He and his warriors have to contend with the new orc threat; physically overmatched and uncertain of their abilities, Lothar is commanded by his King Llane to find Medivh, a great sorcerer whose powers have saved Azeroth many times over. Along with the young mage, Khadgar, Lothar journeys to Medivh in hopes of enlisting him against this new orcish threat. After convincing Medivh to come help them, Lothar and co. return to confront Gul’dan and his horde.
Thrust into the center of this conflict is a half-orc, half-human called Garona. At first a slave to Gul’dan, she eventually escapes only to be taken prisoner by Lothar. Though Lothar is initially distrustful of her, Garona comes to serve as a bridge between cultures; she attempts to teach Lothar about the orcs and their ancestral dedication to war and honor, as well as the hope for the future that she sees embodied by Durotan. Softened by Garona’s counsel, Lothar begins to wonder if a lasting peace could ever be achieved.
As Gul’dan’s powers grow and the Dark Portal nears completion, both sides become desperate for a solution. Durotan, driven by shame at his race’s actions and anger at Gul’dan for his needless cruelty, attempts to meet with Lothar in hopes of forging an alliance that could put an end to the cataclysm that Gul’dan’s success would guarantee.
If that description seems very involved, it is. However, I don’t think this is indicative of poor writing on the part of the writers, Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code) and Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond, In the Heart of the Sea). It is simply a film that demands the audience’s undivided attention. Exposition is kept to a minimum; character relationships, past experiences, etc. are all alluded to or referenced contextually through conversation, just as they would be in real life. This is not to say that hearing certain fantasy lines doesn’t sometimes sound inorganic to our boring, reality-based ears/brains, but the breadth and depth of information presented is done so in a mature way that asks the audience for its trust and belief. If you don’t have enough of those to offer for two hours, I would not recommend seeing this film.
But if you do, then prepare yourself for one of the most narratively interesting experiences you’ll have in a theatre this year. However, before we move into spoiler territory, which really defines why I enjoyed this film so much, let’s talk about the performances. Toby Kebbell continues to prove himself to be one of the most capable actors of his generation. He’s come a long way from his mesmerizing role in Guy Ritchie’s Rock’n’Rolla, recently having been in one of the best episodes of the techno-horror/sci-fi show, Black Mirror, as well as embodying the erratic, unpredictable fury of Koba, the bonobo antagonist of 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. As Durotan, Kebbell continues to elevate his craft, giving a soulful performance that really serves as the moral center of the film. His Durotan is proud, yet not quick to judgment, willing to examine issues from all sides before resorting to violence. Yet there is an honor in violence and the art of warfare for the orcs (some might venture to call it war…craft), and the deeply important cultural value of conflict is what is put into question under the guidance of Gul’dan, whose cruelty undermines all notion of honor. Kebbell effortlessly embodies Durotan’s struggle to act honorably, to find reason and nuance in a situation others see as simply binary. Ultimately, it’s a compelling, powerful performance and one of my favorites this year.
Second in command to Durotan is his trusted lieutenant, Robert Kazinsky’s Orgrim Doomhammer. Though not given much screen time, self-professed Warcraft-lover Robert Kazinsky shows his passion for the source material by imbuing Orgrim with a palpable sense of inner conflict which plays out in a very different way than Kebbell’s Durotan. This is mainly due to Orgrim’s level of intelligence. Though by no means stupid, Orgrim is a being of action; violence and war are his great indulgences and he engages the orcs’ enemies with vigor, tearing through them with his ancestral weapon, the mighty Doomhammer. However, what makes him more than just a mindless brute is his loyalty to Durotan. Their friendship grounds him, opens him up to considering the humans as more than a mere enemy, and makes Orgrim reflect on just what exactly Gul’dan is attempting to do by ushering the Horde into Azeroth. Kazinsky makes the most of his limited screen time, and by the picture’s end, given his inner struggle, Orgrim has one of the most interesting arcs in the film.
Which brings us to Gul’dan, Warcraft’s main antagonist. Gul’dan is played by Daniel Wu (Into the Badlands) with all the sneering, snarling villainy one could hope for. Though Gul’dan is dedicated to bringing the full might of the Horde into Azeroth, it is clear that his loyalty lies with himself more than anyone else and he will do anything to become more powerful. Though perhaps not the most nuanced villain, Wu plays Gul’dan with such swaggering confidence that it’s hard to dislike him. His movements in particular are unique and feel very different than those of the other orc characters; Gul’dan hunches and sways as he moves, as if the Fel has twisted him in body as well as his mind. Furthermore, more than a war chief, Gul’dan is an extremist, trying to sway an entire people into a quasi-religious fervor over the Fel, a power which he preaches only he can control. Despite his cruelty, it is understandable why so many would follow Gul’dan; he is a peddler of promises and deceit, a being wholly committed to his own elevation through manipulation, using a message of hatred and exclusion as his platform (sound like anyone else we know?).
Of the other stands outs, I would cite Travis Fimmel as Lothar, Ben Foster as Medivh, and Paula Patton as Garona. Though I have not yet watched Fimmel in Vikings, his natural charisma and presence permeate his performance of Anduin Lothar. Even though he is perhaps more standard in terms of fantasy characters (bearded white male with a gruff voice), Fimmel plays Lothar with an almost indescribable casualness. Fimmel gives Lothar the laxity of a predator; outside of combat, he’s a soft-spoken, almost disinterested player in part of a larger game, but when it comes to fighting for king and country, there is no one better. Like Orgrim, Lothar’s loyalty lends depth to his convictions and the way in which he struggles to remain loyal to his King while events spiral out of control are incredibly compelling.
Ben Foster, an actor I’ve always admired, brings his trademark off-kilter sensibilities to the role of the mage, Medivh. Whether it’s Charlie Prince of 3:10 to Yuma or The Stranger from 30 Days of Night, Foster is always different in a very palpable way and Medivh is, likewise, hard to categorize. A hermit of sorts and absent from the human kingdom of Azeroth for six years after his last act of heroism, Medivh is at once suspicious and sagely. His reasons for his withdrawal from humanity remain mysterious, but at the same time he always seems to act with the kingdom’s best interest at heart. He treats Garona with the same respect he’d pay to anyone else and even counsels King Llane to make an attempt at peace before turning to all-out war. Medivh’s motives remain clouded until the end of the film, but it is a testament to Ben Foster’s talent and acting ability that he makes Medivh so utterly confounding and interesting for the entirety of the film.
Lastly, I’ll spotlight Paula Patton. I was not initially impressed with Paula Patton’s Garona, who speaks a halting, broken sort of English for the first few of her scenes as she seeks to communicate with her human captors. Yet as the film went on, I found myself growing increasingly attached to her as a character. The reason, I think, is that Garona is what I would like more female fantasy heroines to be. She is strong and capable, but she is not an ice queen, nor is she simply a quick gender swap of a character with no defining qualities. Garona is strong and capable, yet also never loses a sense of vulnerability. She wants to belong to a tribe, to a people, but existing between both the humans and orcs leaves her an outsider from both. Her quest to reconcile this difference, with both the orcs and the humans, is truly affecting, and her arc, as with many in the film, takes a surprising turn by the last reel, further deepening an already layered character, bolstered by Patton’s committed performance.
On the more technical side, Duncan Jones is an incredible director and storyteller. Moon and Source Code, showed us that he could do hard sci-fi and succeed. Warcraft gives him the ability to branch out and showcase his more epic storytelling sensibilities. The choreography of his scenes is impressive and he, along with cinematographer Simon Duggan (The Great Gatsby), create a plethora of staggeringly beautiful images that contrast well with the kinetic brutality of the film’s many fight scenes. Beyond the incredible effects work done by ILM, the practical sets and props are beautiful; they make the world feel like a living, tangible place. The music, by Game of Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi, is propulsive and epic, weaving tribal drums with triumphant horns, and creating a number of memorable themes that are sure to accompany my writing for a long time to come.
All this being said, I loved Warcraft. It is a dazzling fantasy that mines heavy, relevant themes, focusing on the conflict between two peoples’ beliefs and cultures and the incredible violence that can result from misunderstandings and mistreatment. I’ll be brief with my spoilers, but below illuminates why this film is so successful in my eyes as a storytelling feat.
SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS!
This film, above all things, is a tragedy. It is inherently unsatisfying in a dramatic sense, a heart-wrenching anti-popcorn flick for the masses. Despite the action and adventure, when it comes down to it, the film is about a failed alliance between two different cultures and not a single relationship escapes the film unscathed.
Agents from each side attempt to bridge the culture gap, but ultimately they fail and fail hard. Durotan challenges Gul’dan to an honor duel and fails to beat him, losing his life in the process. Garona, about to be killed, is forced by King Llane to assassinate him so that she might live on to sabotage Gul’dan’s enterprise from the inside. Lothar, ignorant of this development, thinks Garona betrayed him and the humans, siding with the orcs. Angered by this perceived betrayal, he returns to the human kingdom of Azeroth to become its king, now hell bent on the destruction of the orc invaders.
Nothing is consummated and no friendships survive save perhaps that between the novice mage Khadgar and Lothar. Beyond them, any hope for love between Lothar and Garona died with the King; Orgrim lost his friend to Gul’dan, who now has complete control over the Horde, and both the humans and the orcs are now prepared to go to war for ownership of the world.
It’s heady stuff. Thematically challenging stuff that constantly wrestles with our expectations as viewers, and for that, I applaud Warcraft. It succeeded in keeping me guessing until the very end, and sadly, I don’t think that happens enough in modern films today, especially blockbusters. Think about the first time you saw Quint dragged into the sea by the shark in Jaws. That feeling permeates the end of this film and it is something I think we should strive for more. Unfortunately, this does not engender love from a wide audience, but I have a great amount of respect for Duncan Jones for approaching this material as earnestly as he did and staying true to the heart of the games. The orcs were not actors painted green. The magic was outlandish and showy. The elves had foot-long ears. The heroes lost, evil won, and only more war and bloodshed will follow.
I know many people don’t feel like I do about this film, and that’s alright, but I loved this film and I ardently hope we get another journey into the world of Warcraft.