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Movie Review: 'Warcraft'

Warcraft takes on too much and delivers too little on its way to clouding the future of the video game movie genre.

Review by Matt Cummings

One might look at the 2016 Summer movie slate and equate it to a bag of feces set afire at your front door. In reality, such childish pranks might be all that's left when the season is done, underlying a growing concern in which the real stakes faced by Hollywood feel higher than normal. Recent releases have been reeling from an assault of soft openings, poor critic reviews, and a general sense that sequelitis is producing films that audiences don't want. Warcraft does little to stem that feeling of dread, cramming in too much story and setting forth some of the worst casting in recent memory. The result both muddies the future of the genre and the chances for this franchise to carry on.

Warcraft is told from two perspectives - the orcs and humans - as each prepares to fight the other, while coming to question their roles and reasons for battling in the first place. For the orcs, it's a matter of survival: their world is dying and demonic leader Gul'dan (voiced by Daniel Wu) is using captured humans as batteries to charge a gate through which the orcs can enter the humans' world. But not all agree with his plan: the leader Durotan (voiced by Tony Kebbell) is concerned that Gul'dan is merely destroying worlds rather than trying to exist within them. Meanwhile, the ill-prepared humans on Azeroth led by King Wrynn (Dominic Cooper) tries to gather an army to combat the threat as his lieutenant Lother (Travis Fimmel) and wizard Medivh (Ben Foster) unearth the orc's plan. Along the way, they'll make allies in the orc castoff Gamona (Paula Patton) and discover that one of their own could be the cause of all their troubles.

From the moment Warcraft begins, you realize there's a different film here than the standard Summer flick; Director Duncan Jones attempts to innovate the genre by switching between those perspectives, attempting to humanize even the orcs into sympathetic villains. We're made to believe that they're fighting for the same reasons the 'good guys' do, to maintain their way of life, even if their existence is being led by someone they all know to be evil. And once the audience makes that connection, nearly everything contained in Warcraft begins to fall apart. But you'll most likely be distracted by the enormity of the CGI bufoonery being committed here; it's some of the worst I've seen this year, failing to breathe any life into the orcs, while missing simple technical continuities like ground shadows as Lothar's bird takes flight. That beast is one of the best things about Warcraft, which doesn't say much about Jones' casting choices.

The aforementioned cast is made of a collection of television actors - including Ruth Negga, Ryan Robbins, and even Fimmel - none of whom help to expand this universe beyond a 2-hour Syfy movie. Burkley Duffield as Lothar's son is an outright disappointment, as is the young wizard Khadgar played by Ben Schnetzer. Movies like this need Orlando Blooms and Ian McKellans to inhabit their characters with more than fighting skills and a stink eye; but even when a quality actor comes along, their performance is questioned. That person is Foster: he seems too young to play a Gandalf-type mage and there's no explanation for why he appears to be so young. And while I like Cooper as Howard Stark, Jones fails to push his king to heroic levels. The best performance comes from Kebbell, who does inhabit Durotan with a sense of right and wrong. He knows that Gul'dan will destroy his clan for his own selfish purpose, and the quality of his struggle is noteworthy.

Warcraft is also a very heavy movie to take on. The factory churns out so many characters and places - some of which never reappear - that some of them get buried within it. This all leads to a third act that both leaves us with an emotional knife in the back, and a sense that Jones missed the point of a critical sequence involving Gul'dan. And while I did like the unique way Act 3 opens, it fails to completely satisfy. Jones has revealed that a significantly longer cut of Warcraft does exist, begging the question as to why did it not make it into the theatrical version. From Dawn of Justice to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, studios need to trust their directors to tell their stories as completely as they can. Such decisions killed Watchmen, leaving a significantly better film on the table, and such decisions could have saved Warcraft.

It's difficult to watch any fantasy movie these days without comparing it to Lord of the Rings, and I wouldn't advise it here. There doesn't appear to be a single outdoor shot - everything looks entirely green-screened - and the sense of majesty and danger in LOTR is only briefly visited in Warcraft. Composer Ramin Djawadi gives us a decent score to hang the film's hat on, but it only serves as background music without establishing itself. Still, Jones does take several bold chances in that third act (no spoilers, I promise) that set up Universal's desire for a sequel. But with so much to fix and a Summer already filled with big losers, it might be impossible to generate interest beyond the gradually diminishing numbers of its World of Warcraft players (down to 5m from 12m just a couple of years ago). The video game genre now punts the ball to the next film - December's Assassin's Creed - in the hopes that superior casting and story will finally win the day.

Warcraft does little to help the future of the video game genre, punting the ball with shoddy casting and an extremely heavy story that needed more time to develop. Although there is another 30 minutes of footage out there that could have saved this film, it seems unlikely that such news will be enough to save this emerging franchise from extinction. Should that happen, chuck yet another failed effort into the trash bin, in a year that's quickly piling up with more stinkers than winners.

Warcraft is rated PG13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy violence and has a runtime of 123 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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