‘Warcraft’ delivers a likeable mess

By Nate Taskin

(Official ‘Warcraft’ Facebook Page)

No contest, “Warcraft” is the best film adaptation of a video game ever made – which still makes it a categorical mess. Nonetheless, with its unapologetic embrace of background lore, thematic ambition and its commitment to the humanization of big green CGI monstrosities, there’s a charming weirdness to the film that makes it easy to admire even when it flies too close to the sun.

The orcs – a race of proud warriors that have more in common with the Dothraki than the beady-eyed urchins of J.R.R. Tolkien – live on a planet that has decayed as a result of overexposure to an evil magic known as the Fel. Their leader, Gul’dan, builds a magical portal to Azeroth, a peaceful world populated by humans, elves and dwarves.

While the hooded, hunched-over Gul’dan is so transparently evil that I wouldn’t follow him into the world’s glossiest candy store (much less an interdimensional vortex), he inspires enough respect from his minions that when he announces his plan to conquer this new planet in the name of the Horde, they roar with approval.

The first 15 or so minutes are a blitz of exposition, filled with fancy fantasy names, terms and places. Given the extent of my knowledge about the “Warcraft” series comes from that one “South Park” episode, I commend director Duncan Jones for his ability to dive head-first into the universe’s convoluted history and translate what could have been incomprehensible into something borderline coherent to a casual viewer. Although I still couldn’t tell you what the Fel is supposed to be, other than a “bad thing that makes you go bad.”

The film’s greatest achievement is its groundbreaking motion-capture technology. Toby Kebbell plays Durotan, an orc chief who recognizes the danger of Gul’dan and wishes to protect his people, and we see every crack of emotion and every shift in temperament. We see the full range of tangible feelings flit across his green face just as they would a human, yet never once does it fall into uncanny valley territory.

Even with a budget as extravagant as this one, Duncan Jones’s talent for character work evident in “Moon” and “Source Code” still shines through. We sympathize with Durotan’s desire to protect his kinsman. His tender relationship with his pregnant wife, Draka, is genuinely compelling – their pillow talk (don’t laugh) has actual chemistry – and feels recognizably human.

Certainly more human than the actual humans of the story. The film switches back and forth between human and orc factions, and the quality disparity between these two types of scenes could fill a chasm. All of the intrigue and excitement the orcs evoke whittles away whenever we cut back to the humans.

None of the characters are remotely compelling. Travis Fimmel plays a discount Aragorn, and makes the all too common generic Grizzled Male Fantasy Hero error where he mistakes smarm for charm.

Meanwhile, Paula Patton plays Garona, who is half-orc, half-human. One would think the central conflict between her identities, which one could parallel to the sense of disharmony biracial people often feel in the real world, would make for easy drama, yet Patton’s stilted line delivery – and the script’s lack of interest in her arc’s development beyond cheap sequel bait – squander any chance of that narrative bearing fruit.

Ben Schnetzer plays a mage understudy who perpetually looks like someone just gave him a wedgie, Ben Foster dons the role of a wizard who looks like he just barely finished the Hogwarts equivalent of graduate school, and Dominic Cooper plays a king who looks like he can barely fight his own constipation, much less an army of orcs.

The failure of the human characters nearly ruins the film and, with ten hours worth of material crammed into a two hour runtime, Jones and co. need to convey as much information as possible, and they lack the proper tools to do so.

Imagine an adaptation of “Game of Thrones” as a feature-length movie rather than a television series. We receive the bare essentials of plot: people walk on, give the necessary expository dialogue and then die. Yet these scenes, half of which already hindered by miscast actors, don’t have time to develop so that these “big moments” carry the necessary impact.

That lack of breathing room is a real shame when one considers the type of story “Warcraft” wants to tell. In an era defined by the plight of refugees as they escape the chaos of their homeland in the hope of a brighter future, “Warcraft” even tries to tackle this subject matter (with admittedly muddled results, given how the real-life refugees aren’t here to colonize new territory) which puts it above the average summer blockbuster.

There are heroes and villains on both sides, and much of the conflict stems from a simple lack of communication between disparate cultures. The film aims for massive stakes wrought with gray-area moral choices.

Though there’s plenty to dislike about “Warcraft,” I have difficulty seeing how anyone could outright hate it. It’s too weird in presentation and too passionate about its subject matter to just dismiss as another big budget waft in the wind. Duncan Jones and his team swung hard and they missed. Nevertheless, I would rather watch an ambitious team of writers and animators make an artistic gamble than yet again watch a bunch of studio hacks refuse to step up to the plate.

Nate Taskin can be reached at [email protected]