'Warcraft': Film Review

Crafty, and with heart.

Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton and state-of-the-art digital animation topline a long-in-development game-based movie.

Ten years after game maker Blizzard Entertainment announced its intention to take the megahit multimedia property Warcraft to the big screen, it arrives in a striking blend of pricey practical and digital effects. As with many “high fantasy” epics, once you get past the costumes and lingo, the abracadabra and inevitable elves, the movie’s story is as simple as its visuals are elaborate. Beneath the richly textured layers of motion capture, animation and 3D modeling lie the basics: conflict, survival, family, loyalty.

While the enormity of the undertaking is evident in every frame of the sci-fi medieval-ish action saga, director Duncan Jones manages, for the most part, to keep it from lumbering. With an emphasis on craft over war, the characters are front and center, and those that are partly digital creations are among its most memorable. They have heart.

But if you’ve never played Warcraft the game, can you care about Warcraft the movie? Given the ardent global following of the franchise, will it matter? For non-aficionados, the two-hour experience could be more concise, but it’s no ordeal. Neither, though, is it consistently involving. If you haven’t already invested in the self-serious mythology, it can feel borderline camp, if not downright dull — or both, as when an uncredited Glenn Close intones platitudes from on high about darkness and light.

Yet there’s no question that it’s a breakthrough in both storytelling and artistry for features based on video games. And compared with another medieval-ish tale, the soporific Hobbit trilogy, this international production is a fleet and nimble ride, likely to conquer overseas box offices and make a solid stand stateside.

With three films on Jones’ résumé, the exponential growth of the budgets and fictional universes at his command is notable. The built-in muchness of the new material, along with its body-slamming battles (what the MPAA calls “extended sequences of intense fantasy violence”), makes it a far cry from his minimalist Moon. In that film and Source Code, the trippy intersection of technology and human identity was Jones’ subject. Here it’s his method, with leaps in CGI and motion capture on the order of Avatar’s seven years ago, and just as dazzling in their artifice.

The screenplay, credited to Jones and Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond), tells the origin story of the war between humans and orcs, a race of green-blooded giants. The orcs have invaded Azeroth, a planet where humans, dwarves and other humanoids live in peace but with standing armies at the ready, led by the brave Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), scarred in body and soul. As the bass rumble of voiceover by the orc chieftain Durotan (Toby Kebbell) explains, “Our world was dying, and I had to find my clan a new home.”

Durotan is a fair and revered leader with exceptionally expressive eyes. Soon after the orcs arrive on Azeroth — through an otherworldly birth canal of sorts that prefigures the birth of Durotan’s son — the chieftain becomes an insurgent against the orcs’ de facto leader, the warlock Gul’dan (Daniel Wu). Gul-dan practices a malignant brand of magic that spares no one, not even his loyal war chief, Blackhand (Clancy Brown), and wreaks havoc throughout the story. But the nature of his powers is made hauntingly clear when he casually extracts the life force from one of his many prisoners, a masterfully realized bit of horror imagery.

Along with his dauntless wife, Draka (Anna Galvin), and steadfast second-in-command, Orgrim (Rob Kazinsky), Durotan seeks an alliance with humans. Besides the warrior Lothar, Azeroth’s main players are the gallant King Llane Wrynn (Dominic Cooper, wisely underplaying); his dignified wife, Lady Taria (Ruth Negga, likewise); and the ultimate mage, Medivh (Ben Foster, definitely not underplaying). Like many a gifted channeller of powerful forces, Medivh is paying the price, and in the process providing the movie’s most extravagantly hammy moments. The humongous golem he’s sculpting in his isolated tower is the first red flag that he’s several glyphs around the dark bend.

A reluctant but curious young apprentice mage, Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), stirs things up, to Medivh’s deep dismay, and offers a touch of comic-sidekick relief. But it’s the half-orc, half-human Garona (Paula Patton) who plays a pivotal role, and not just as a crucial go-between in the negotiations between Durotan and Lothar, who understandably falls for her. The movie’s female characters are few, but they’re all formidable, and none more full-blooded than Patton’s turn as the tough Garona.

Human-proportioned (her orc tusks are petite), she’s a survivor — of imprisonment and abuse born of intolerance for interspecies miscegenation. Rather than turn that into a lesson, the screenplay turns it into drama. In a story whose key strength is its interest in both sides of the human-orc war, Jones and cinematographer Simon Duggan strip things down in a few scenes that have the primal eloquence of classic Westerns: A trip on horseback over mountains becomes an occasion for campsite confessions; a secret meeting in a desolate canyon brings mutual suspicions and unilateral betrayals into the open.

The balance between those sequences and the battles, with their brutal swordplay and thwacks of flesh and bone, won’t suit everyone, and the sections where you might zone out will depend on your taste. But the movie is character-driven every step of the way. That’s why, even if the world created by Jones and his talented design collaborators, both old-school physical and cutting-edge digital, isn’t seamlessly believable so much as staggeringly crafted, it casts a spell.

Combining primitive textures (hides and sun-bleached bones) with the glowing whoosh of magical elements, Warcraft is a big-screen, 3D game that the viewer enters, to the martial beats of the elegantly ominous score by Ramin Djawadi (composer of the Game of Thrones theme). Its use of multiple cameras to film the motion capture performers in the same take as those playing human characters is one of the ways that it’s new. And then there’s Durotan’s eyes, and Garona’s grit. Dramatically and technically, Warcraft gives the concept of “hybrid” new punch.

Distributor: Universal
Production: Legendary Pictures and Universal Pictures present a Legendary Pictures/Blizzard Entertainment/Atlas Entertainment production
Cast: Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, Toby Kebbell, Ben Schnetzer, Rob Kazinsky, Clancy Brown, Daniel Wu, Ruth Negga, Callum Keith Rennie
Director: Duncan Jones
Screenwriters: Charles Leavitt, Duncan Jones, based on Blizzard Entertainment’s Warcraft
Producers: Charles Roven, Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni, Alex Gartner, Stuart Fenegan
Executive producers: Jillian Share, Brent O’Connor, Mike Morhaime, Paul Sams, La Peikang, Edward Cheng, Qian Shimu, Wang Zhonglei
Director of photography: Simon Duggan
Production designer: Gavin Bocquet
Costume designer: Mayes C. Rubeo
Editor: Paul Hirsch
Composer: Ramin Djawadi
Sound designer/supervisor: Wylie Stateman
Visual effects supervisors: Bill Westenhofer, Jeff White, Jason Smith
Animation supervisor: Hal Hickel
Visual effects producer: Mark Soper
Stunt coordinator: Tom Struthers
Movement choreographer: Terry Notary
Casting: Mary Vernieu, Lindsay Graham

Rated PG-13, 123 minutes