Warcraft officially opens this weekend on June 10, but it’s already been punctured with angry, negative reviews that called it “simple”, “pedestrian” and “already in the running for Worst Film of 2016.” While it’s easy to point out all the places where Duncan Jones, director of Moon, disappointed fans of the game and of fantasy worlds, it’s a disservice to the high fantasy genre to dismiss the entire endeavor as trash.
Is Warcraft trash? Maybe, but only if you’re the type of person who walks past a huge dumpster labeled “time machine parts” and thinks, “Wow, someone really tried to do something here, but it failed, and I am not curious. I don’t care about examining this to figure out what happened.”
Despite being a laughably bad movie, Warcraft boasts quite a few interesting variables. So what are the haters missing out on?
The orcs are actually fascinating
Warcraft opens with a scene featuring only orcs, and frankly, it should have stayed in that world. There’s no denying that the language of Jones’s updated orcs is fascinating, but even when they speak English, voice actors Toby Kebbell, Ben Schnetzer, and Daniel Wu turn their CGI monsters into transfixing, strange monsters. There are several warring clans of orcs, hinted at with visual signifiers — different clothing and armor, an array of skin colors — and explicated in effective dialogue between the Frostwolf group. Jones and his team paid special attention to building out the orc diaspora, visually.
Individual orcs are memorable too. Wu, in particular, plays one of the most flagrantly evil characters in recent fantasy: Gul’dan is a lumbering nightmare whose design Guillermo Del Toro would probably admire, and he opens the film with actions so disturbing that it’s difficult to find one’s bearings after Warcraft’s first scene.
Charlotte O’Sullivan, of The Evening Standard, believed all the orcs in Warcraft looked exactly the same. She wrote:
But so many things make it hard to go with the flow. For starters, practically all the male orcs look like our hero, decent chieftain Durotan (Toby Kebbell, in a motion capture suit). I spent much of the movie in a panic, thinking, “Why is Durotan suddenly being so mean/stupid?” only to realise the orc before me was a different fellow, Scrotum Breath, say, or Fungus the Foot. (I jest. But not much).
But her critique of the creatures reeks of someone whose favorite scene in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers wasn’t the one where the Uruk Hai and orcs argued while carrying Merry and Pippin across Rohan. You know, “we ain’t ‘ad nothing but maggoty brain for three stinkin’ days”, that classic exchange?
I mean, lady, the orcs in Warcraft are clearly identifiable because they’ve all got this dope armor on. Did you not see Blackhand’s big ol’ black hand? If you’re going to get tripped up on silly sounding names, fantasy’s the wrong genre for you, my friend.
Critics more comfortable working with fantasy texts responded positively to the orcs, specifically Toby Kebbell’s Durotan. Den of Geek’s Don Kaye writes:
Toby Kebbell’s Durotan is the most complex character in the picture, a creature with real feelings and empathy who is perhaps the conscience of the entire piece. While unrecognizable in his thick CG skin, Kebbell does give a genuine performance underneath all the ones and zeroes, and the much-heralded facial capture work on Durotan yields some dazzling shots.
Kaye is correct in identifying Durotan as the heart of Warcraft, and the film would have been much better if Jones had only committed to making his central orc the only protagonist.
Before the viewer even knows what’s going on or where she is, she has to watch Durotan do nothing as Gul’dan violently rips the life force out of caged blue humanoids, powering the gigantic portal that serves as the film’s central focus. We’ve already opened with Durotan, and we’d like to be believe he’s an okay guy, but when he doesn’t react to the death of hundreds, we’re not sure how we’re supposed to feel.
The effect of that sudden violence is like having a band-aid ripped off, but it takes two layers of skin with it. It’s too much carnage out of context, and the scene remains unearned; Warcraft transitions clumsily and without warning into a human story following that opening roar, and its primary, human heroes are too boring to make up for the stunning chaos of the film’s opening sequence. Thirty minutes into a scene in which four white men argue, and it’s all the viewer can do to not wonder, “wait, where are the orcs? Who I am supposed to be rooting for, again?”
When the film lingers on the orcs, we’re bombarded with physical imagery that’s only made more strange and interesting because it’s 100% CGI. Why zoom in, multiple times, on a pregnant orc’s belly, from below? Why do all the orcs have peach fuzz on their gleaming, muscled shoulders? We don’t discover until Draka bites another orc that their blood is bright green, and since that occurs late in the film, it feels like an afterthought.
In the bedroom scene between Durotan and Draka, the two orcs’ facial expressions don’t move in a fluid enough way to communicate exactly what they’re feeling, and the result is a very uncomfortable exchange. Durotan caresses Draka’s pregnant belly, they writhe around next to each other on furs, and they laugh at a line that isn’t funny. The film has a complex relationship with its orcs, who are the most interesting creatures onscreen, but also come dangerously close to crossing into the needlessly grotesque.
When the orcs are supposed to be monstrous, either dressing for battle or swaying and scowling, they’re a stunning group. It’s hard not to feel a surge of excitement every time Gul’dan bellows “the horde!”, and one of the high ranking orcs who wears an unnamed creature’s spinal column down his back is admittedly very cool.
Though the rest of the film is overwrought and not contextualized with honest emotion — any scene involving only human characters is very confusing — Warcraft is worth a look because it’s an attempt at complicating a fantasy race. Jones’ intelligent voice is at its most potent in Warcraft when he’s exploring how the orc world works, and that respect for introducing an audience to “the other” bodes well for both science fiction and fantasy narratives to come.