Every big studio film represents some kind of compromise between commerce and art. Some particularly craven cash-grabs leave art almost entirely out of the picture, but those aren’t the most frustrating films, just as the pure-art prestige pictures are rarely the most fascinating ones. The films that tend to provoke the strongest reactions are the ones that try to force art and commercial sensibilities to meet square in the middle.
Duncan Jones’ Warcraft is a perfect example. As a long-troubled adaptation of an immensely popular video game series, 10 years in development (and in Sam Raimi’s hands before Jones took over in 2013), Warcraft comes to the table with a complicated series of mandates. It’s trying to find a suitable relaunching point for a story that Blizzard’s video games have been telling in different forms for more than 20 years. It’s trying to set up a potentially enormous film franchise for Universal. And it’s trying to please hardcore fans of the game series without completely confusing or alienating non-players who’ve never spammed knights to take out an orc encampment, and don't even know what that means.
That alone is a tall order, but Jones' ambitions reach much higher. He's trying to tell a story about people driven equally by duty and personal need. He's trying for something denser and more realistic than the usual fantasy binaries of pure, simple good and evil. He's also finding resonance with his favorite themes, as seen in his previous films, Moon and Source Code: all three of his movies are about people caught up in work they think is critical, until they realize how they're being victimized and lied to by people taking advantage of that work. And at every step along the way, Warcraft is clearly trying to be richer and more sophisticated than the average fantasy blockbuster. Fans of the genre, or the games, are more likely to see the points where Jones succeeds in transcending the usual blockbuster fantasy tropes. Non-fans are just likely to see the failures, and experience the film as an overcrowded mess.
Warcraft focuses on Azeroth, a world inhabited by humans, elves, and dwarves, and facing invasion by savage orc warriors. The story draws on settings and ideas from Blizzard's ever-expanding 2004 MMORPG World Of Warcraft, but it's more deeply and specifically rooted in 1994's simpler series-launcher Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, a real-time strategy game where each side had its own story campaign. True to the game, the orcs and humans in Warcraft each have separate stories, and draw separate sympathies. The orcs are beholden to the monstrous orc warlock Gul'dan (Daniel Wu), whose magic consumes entire worlds, pushing the orcish Horde to seek new places to settle and new life to consume. But orc clan leader Durotan (Toby Kebbell) is beginning to understand that Gul'dan's merciless leadership isn't strengthening his people so much as using them to selfish, destructive ends.
Gul'dan isn't the only refurbished archetype. The other major players all have odd touches of ferocity or humor, nobility or venality or fear. They have the outlines of familiar fantasy tropes, but the heroism and the failings are distributed equally on both sides. Warcraft's look and tone often falls somewhere between Avatar and John Carter, two other similarly CGI-heavy, narratively overstuffed would-be fantasy-franchise launchers. But both of those films suffered under the painfully broad, obvious character beats that made their stories predictable. Warcraft is reaching for something more nuanced. It's also meant to be more surprising, particularly about who survives and who doesn't. This is a dark story without a tidy happily-ever-after conclusion, and just as it equivocates about painting either side as the villains, it equivocates about who ultimately wins their face-off.
But while this isn't a neatly ordered good-conquers-all fantasy, it also isn't an economical fairy tale. It spins its wheels over side stories without finding their relevance. It introduces characters (particularly the dwarves) without justifying their place in the story. And given the two-hour runtime, it can't entirely get where it's trying to go, not with a cast this large and a plot this dense.
Warcraft rushes from one locale to another, sometimes so quickly, and with so little purpose, that it just seems to be name-checking game locations. Its charge through a variety of inessential plot details sometimes makes it seem like a deliberately silly parody of epic fantasy stories. Dedicated franchise fans may have an inkling why Khadgar is suddenly talking to a mysterious woman (Glenn Close, uncredited) inside a mysterious magical object at a mysterious sky temple after his mysterious tattoo leads him to a mysterious book. But for everyone else, it's a jumble of elaborate names, garish CGI effects, and opaque, silly-sounding prophecy. The headlong push from one faction to the next leaves many distracting questions, without any sense that the answers would be interesting. There's no compelling plot need, for instance, to delve into why Khadgar abandoned his mage training. But given how often the event comes up, the failure to address it makes it seem like there's a scene missing somewhere.
It often feels like Warcraft should have taken more time from its repetitive epic battles to fill in the gaps between its jarring plot lurches. It's an invasion story, and the big fight set pieces are inevitable. But the earliest ones are directed with a thrillingly active camera, some playful first-person shots, and an aggressive attempt to get into the middle of the action. As the film stretches out and the camera pulls back further and further for scope, the details and the sense of immediacy and personal stakes get lost, and one bone-crunching combat blurs into another. The orcs, performed via motion-capture, are similarly distinctive in the early going, but hard to tell apart when battle erases their individuality. Warcraft feels like it's constantly fighting a war for distinctiveness, one it often can't win while still serving the franchise machine.
But it does find distinction in the smallest touches, like the smart way it handles the orc / human language difference by sticking with individual characters' points of view, or the way it sometimes takes time for odd and immersive spectacle, like the orcs' experience in falling through the doorway between worlds. And in some cases, it doesn't need distinctiveness at all. Warcraft willingly throws itself into some familiar fantasy tropes, the kind that nakedly appeal to viewers' emotions. For all its attempts to complicate the epic fantasy warfare genre, it often comes down to a simple open-heartedness about the nobility of sacrifice, or the thrill of fighting for a righteous cause.
Warcraft won't fully satisfy the game series' most demanding fans, simply because of all the things it omits or glosses over in this opening installment. (Dragons? No. Undead? No. Elves and dwarves? Barely.) Believe it or not, this is an immensely pared-down version of even the most basic Warcraft story, and it leaves many key game factions for possible later installments. At the same time, it won't fully satisfy many newbies: even at its most accessible, it's a blur of names, faces, and places, sometimes stuck together only with solemnity and self-importance. But the film has already largely been painted as an unmitigated disaster, and it's hardly that. It's a knock-down, drag-out fight between storytelling, franchise-making, and fan service, and some casualties were inevitable. But even a messy fight for nuance is better than an apathetic sell-out. Warcraft won't go down in history as a ringing success, but people who see it aren't likely to forget it easily, either. It's much more of a commercial endeavor than Jones' other films, but it doesn't abandon art by the wayside.