Saturday, June 25, 2016

It Came From The Cineplex: Warcraft

Warcraft was written by Charles Leavitt and Duncan Jones, and directed by Duncan Jones.

Leavitt previously wrote K-PAX, Blood Diamond, Seventh Son and In The Heart Of The Sea, which should tell you everything you need to know about his talent level. Jones previously directed Source Code (meh) and Moon (which wasn't bad).

Duncan Zowie Haywood Jones is also the son of the late David Bowie. Bowie's real name was David Jones, but he apparently changed it so as not to be confused with Davey Jones of The Monkees fame.

Warcraft is of course based on the video game franchise by Blizzard Entertainment. The story's taken more or less from the 1994 game Warcraft: Orcs And Humans.

It's a decent, if somewhat derivative high fantasy film, that manages to humanize its Orc characters and give them some much needed dimension and depth. Think the Klingon episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and you'll have the right idea.

If you're not a fan of the Warcraft phenomenon, don't let that scare you away from seeing the film. I've never played even a second of any of the games, and I didn't have any trouble following the movie. There are plenty of Easter eggs, in-jokes and hidden characters in the film that only fans of the games will recognize and appreciate, but you won't need a Master's degree in Warcraft to enjoy it.

The film was first announced back in May 2006 (!), but was dropped because Blizzard feared comparisons with The Lord Of The Rings films. Given that Warcraft prominently features Orcs, this was probably a valid concern.

It was then scheduled for a 2009 release, and then pushed back again until 2011. Legendarily awful director Uwe Boll approached Blizzard Entertainment to direct the film, but they wisely had security throw him out of the building. Sam Raimi was then set to direct, but was ultimately replaced by Duncan Jones in 2013. It was Jones' idea to "humanize" the Orcs, and make them more than cardboard adversaries.

The movie has severely underperformed in America, grossing just $42 million so fa against its $160 million budget. I'm not sure why the film hasn't caught on with audiences. Maybe it's coming too late now that the games' popularity has faded somewhat?

Oddly enough Warcraft is an enormous hit in China. It raked in over $200 million there, received the widest ever release and becoming the all-time highest grossing film. If there's ever a Warcraft 2, it'll be because of China, which is fast becoming one of the biggest influences in Hollywood.

Like many modern blockbusters, Warcraft seems more concerned with setting up a franchise than it does telling its own story. It's not as blatant about it as some (I'm lookin' at you, Dark Knight V Hopeman), but it's obvious they're prepping for a sequel.


The Plot:
We begin on the planet Draenor, the home world of the Orc race. We meet Durotan, the leader of the Frostwolf Clan, his pregnant wife Draka, and his best pal Orgrim Doomhammer. Get used to these kinds of names, because the movie's chock full of 'em. Unfortunately Draenor's become uninhabitable, as the powerful warlock Gul'dan has befouled it with deadly fel magic.

Gul'dan unites the various Orc clans into a massive Horde. He drains the lifeforce from a camp of Draenei prisoners, and uses it to open a portal to the world of Azeroth. He plans to take the Horde through the portal, conquer Azeroth and set up housekeeping there. Durotan has his doubts about this plan, as he just wants to live out his life with his family and pending son. Gosh, these Orcs aren't really bad sorts after all. They're just like us!

For some insane reason, Durotan allows his wife Draka to join the raiding party. As they pass through the portal to Azeroth, Draka goes into labor. Once there, Gul'dan delivers her baby. Unfortunately it's stillborn, probably due to Draka leaping through a weird interdimensional portal to another world. Gul'dan uses fel magic to drain the lifeforce from a nearby dear and bring the baby back to life. Durotan names the baby Go'el.

The Orcs raid several human settlements in Azeroth, which draws the attention of Anduin Lothar, commander of the army of Stormwind. Lothar finds a "failed" mage named Khadgar rooting around the bodies, seemingly violating the dead. Khadgar says he was examining the bodies, which contain traces of fel magic. Lothar takes Khadgar to King Llane of Stormwind. There, Khadgar suggests the King consult the powerful mage Medivh, the Guardian who protects Stormwind. Fortunately the actual movie's far more coherent than this convoluted synopsis.

Lothar and Khadgar pay a visit to Medivh, who's sculpting a giant clay golem. Gosh, I wonder if that'll become important later on? Medivh is intrigued by the threat of deadly fel magic, and joins Lothar's scouting party. The soldiers are ambushed by a group of Orcs. Medivh uses his powerful magic to kill most of them. The Horde's leader, Blackhand, along with Durotan and Orgrim, manage to escape.

Khadgar finds an Orc-human hybrid called Garona, and captures her with a spell. Lothar takes her back to King Llane. When Garona offers her loyalty to Stormwind, Llane frees her. She leads the human soldiers to spy on the Orc camp, where they learn that Gul'dan plans to bring the entire Horde through the portal to Azeroth.

Meanwhile, it finally dawns on Durotan that he has no quarrel with humans, and Gul'dan is the true enemy. The dark mage destroyed Draenor and if not stopped, will do the same to Azeroth. Durotan invites King Llane to a meeting, hoping to form an alliance with the humans to destroy Gul'dan. Khadgar reads a book he "borrowed" from Medivh's library, which implies that Gul'dan couldn't have opened the portal on his own, and had to have help from someone in Azeroth. Just then Medivh sees Khadgar's research and burns it, taking back the book. Well, that certainly doesn't seem suspicious.

Durotan and his Frostwolf Clan meet with King Llane to negotiate an alliance. Naturally they decide the best place for this conference is in the middle of a steep-walled canyon that makes them sitting ducks for potential attackers. As Garona translates for Durotan and Llane, Blackhand and a force of Orcs attack right on cue. Medivh sets up a forcefield to separate the humans and Orcs. Unfortunately, Lothar's son Callan, who's a Stormwind soldier, finds himself on the Orc side, and is killed by Blackhand. Durotan realizes there's no hope for an alliance, and reluctantly retreats. Medivh is severely weakened by generating the field, and Khadgar and Garona return him to his headquarters. Khadgar notices Medivh's eye's glowing green, a sure sign that he's using fel magic— and that he's the traitor.

Khadgar returns to Hogwarts, er, I mean Dalaran, the magical school he attended, but fled before his training was complete. He meets with the mages there about Medivh. They confirm that he's been corrupted by fel magic, and possessed by a demon to boot.

Back at the Horde camp, Blackhand throws Durotan into prison, and wipes out the Frostwolf Clan. Gul'dan then infuses Blackhand with fel magic, making him even more powerful. Orgrim realizes Durotan was right about Gul'dan, and helps Draka and her baby escape. The imprisoned Durotan challenges Gul'dan to Mak'gora, a traditional Orish duel to the death for leadership of the Horde. Gul'dan accepts the challenge, but cheats by draining Durotan's life force, killing him. Well. That was certainly unexpected! The other Orcs disapprove of Gul'dan's cheating, but are afraid to speak up, lest he drain them as well. Gul'dan then sacrifices his human captives to open the portal, allowing the remaining Orcs on Draenor to pour into Azeroth.

Meanwhile, Draka flees with her son, pursued by the Horde. She places Go'el's baby carrier in a river and he floats serenely away, which is nothing at all like the Moses In The Bullrushes legend from the Bible. She's then shot and killed by the Horde.

King Llane sends Lothar and Khadgar to deal with Medivh. Once there, Medivh activates his golem, which comes to life and attacks (told you!). Lothar manages to destroy the golem, while Khadgar battles Medivh. Khadgar manages to kill the demon possessing Medivh, mortally wounding him in the process. With his last ounce of strength, Medivh closes the portal from Draenor and opens one to Stormwind. This allows Llane to evacuate most of the human prisoners from the Horde camp. Medivh then dies, and the portal closes. Llane, Garona and a small group of human soldiers then face the entire Orc Horde.

As the hopeless battle rages, Llane tells Garona she has to kill him. He claims this will bring her honor among the Orcs, and they'll make her their leader. She'll then be able to hammer out a treaty between the two races. Garona is hesitant, but realizes he's right. She kills Llane, and is instantly revered by the Horde. Lothar retrieves Llane's body and sees Garona's knife sticking out his side, and realizes she killed him. Since he wasn't made privy to Llan's plan, he believes Garona betrayed Stormwind.

Blackhand challenges Lothar to Mak'gora. Lothar accepts and defeats him surprisingly easily. Since he won fair and square, the Orcs allow him to leave with Llane's body (because like Klingons, they're all about honor, dontcha know).

Back at Stormwind, the leaders of Azeroth— humans, dwarves straight from the set of The Hobbit, and some freakish-looking high elves
— form an alliance against the Orcs, and elect Lothar as the leader of their forces. Orgrim takes one of Durotan's tusks from his desiccated body as a memento. Go'el's basket washes up on shore, and the Orc baby is found by a passing human.

• I appreciate the fact that Jones made the effort to humanize the Orcs, making them real characters with actual lives and a culture. They're infinitely more interesting than Tolkien's Orcs, who have little or no depth and exist solely as cannon fodder. It's always more interesting to see how a conflict affects characters on both sides. Kudos!

 I get that Orc women are probably sturdier than human females, but... why in the name of sanity did Durotan think it would be a good idea to let his just-about-to-pop pregnant wife jump through a supernatural portal and take part in a battle?

• Speaking of Orcs, they were all very well done, and the CGI looked as realistic as possible for such outlandish designs. Unfortunately every time I saw a close up of one, all I could think was "How can they speak with those giant tusks jutting out of their mouths? And why aren't they constantly drooling?"

• From what I can tell (I've never played any of the games or read any of the books), most of the character designs in the film are spot on, matching their game counterparts almost perfectly. Movie Gul'dan in particular looks like the game character come to life.

• Supposedly some forty minutes were cut from the film for time. Let's hope there's a Director's Cut that restores the footage, which will no doubt make the story flow more smoothly and flesh out a few of the characters.

• I really liked the way magic was depicted in the film. Whenever Khadgar would cast a spell, his hands would be surrounded by a ring of glowing, arcane runes floating in midair. It's a pretty cool effect I've not seen before.

The upcoming Doctor Strange movie appears to use this same effect, or one very much like it, but Warcraft beat them to it by a good six months.

• We're told that Khadgar ran away from wizard school before his training was completed. For a "failed" mage, he seems pretty darned powerful to me. He casts spells and forms force fields left and right all through the film. If he'd actually completed his training he'd probably be just a step or two away from being a god.

Gratuitous Use Of The Wilhelm Scream: At one point Lothar and his men are ambushed by Orcs in the woods. One of the Orcs grabs a human and effortlessly flings him into the air. He utters the Wilhelm scream as he goes flyin.'

OK, it was a fun little Easter Egg the first 49,573 times it was used, but the novelty's starting to wear a bit thing. It's way past time this sound effect was retired for good.

• Dominic Cooper plays King Llane, and Ruth Negga plays Lady Taria, his queen. Hmm. Both have played characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and they're currently starring together in AMC's Preacher series. Why do they keep turning up in the same projects? Are they a package deal?

Turns out that Cooper and Negga have been dating since 2010, and live together in London.

• The half breed Garona is the film's "hot" character, so she's much sexier than the standard Orc female. As such she's much more human looking. Well, apart from the green skin, pointed ears and what appear to be Tic-Tacs in the corners of her mouth.

What is it with all the green women in sci-fi and fantasy tales? You've got the Orion Slave Women from Star Trek, She-Hulk from Marvel Comics, Gamora from Guardians Of The Galaxy and now Garona. There's definitely some kind of "emerald fetish" going on here.

• So is Medivh really Garona's father? 

Garona's half human, half Orc, and she explains that her Orcish mother was executed for giving birth to an "abomination" like her. Why they didn't kill Garona as well is apparently none of our business. 

When Medivh meets Garona, he tells her that when he was younger, he travelled to a far land, where he found "a strong and noble people." Among them was a woman who he fell in love with, and "accepted him for what he was." When Garona asks what happened to this woman, Medivh hurriedly changes the subject, indicating he doesn't want to talk about it. He then conjures up a magic blue flower and gives it to her.

He never comes right out and says it, but it seems like a pretty big hint that he's her daddy. Plus I can't think of any other reason why he'd tell her that story unless he thought they were kin.

It's all moot anyway, since Medivh dies at the end of the movie. Or does he? I suppose it's always possible he could return for the sequel.

• Khadgar returns to Dalaran, the magical school he fled as a youngster. There he's confronted by Alodi, some sort of seer who gives him advice. Alodi was played by an uncredited Glenn Close.

Hmm. Close had a fairly large role in Guardians Of The Galaxy, and now this bit part in Warcraft. Is... is Glenn Close a nerd like us?

• I was very surprised that the script didn't shy away from killing off several main characters, including Durotan. Well done! Well, not well done to the killings, but to the fact that the plot wasn't always predictable.

• It was interesting to see an epic fantasy battle that featured firearms in addition to the usual swords, spears and bows. It was a bit jarring the first time I saw a human shoot an Orc with a gun, but after I got used to it, it was pretty cool.

• Azeroth seems to feature three main races: humans, dwarves and high elves. Unfortunately the dwarves here look EXACTLY like the ones from The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings films. And I do mean exactly. The first time I saw one I thought, "What's Gimli doing in this movie?"

They look like they're wearing some of the leftover armor from The Hobbit. And they're even wearing the big rubber hands to help them look like short, squat people!

Maybe there's only so many ways to depict a fantasy dwarf, but I think New Line and Peter Jackson could successfully sue if they wanted.

The elves on the other hand, couldn't look more different than their Tolkien counterparts. I'd go so far as to say they're downright goofy looking, what with their glowing eyes, protruding Andy Rooney eyebrows and foot-long pointed ears.

• As Draka's being pursued by enemy Orcs, she sets her son Go'el adrift in a river, where he floats merrily downstream until he's found by a passing human (thus setting up a sequel). 

Sigh... why would anyone write a scene like that at this point in time? There's no way to film it without invoking thoughts and comparisons to Moses. Surely there was a better way to introduce Go'el to his new family?

• As I mentioned earlier, the movie's filled with Easter eggs and shoutouts to the various Warcraft games. I'm not going to list them all here, as you can easily find them on the interwebs. I will say it's obvious that the film was made by people who love the games, and made sure they got all the details just right for the fans. That's rare these days in Hollywood, when the norm is to ask, "What can we change?"

Warcraft is a rare breed in Hollywood
— a videogame movie that actually works. It's surprising and derivative at the same time, as it attempts to build a dense and complicated world, and give some depth to its "villains." It's worth a look on the big screen for the spectacle and battle scenes alone. I give it a B.

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