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'Warcraft' Review: Now That's Damned Good Fantasy. No, Seriously. I'm Surprised Too.

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Film | June 10, 2016 | Comments ()

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Film | June 10, 2016 |


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This feels like a review that requires several caveats in order to be taken seriously, because herein rests a positive review of Warcraft, perhaps the only one on the entire Internet.

I went in expecting to hate this movie. This is relatively normal for me, because I review a lot of terrible movies for this site on account of those Polaroids of the mistakes of my youth that Dustin keeps in a lockbox. And also because I saw the trailers and they caused me literal physical pain I have not felt since trying to eat during the week after my root canal.

When you’re a movie critic driving to the theater for a shitty movie that you don’t want to see, you invariably end up spitefully starting to write the review in your head as you hit every single red light. “The CGI was so listless and fake-looking that a 1999 video game console would have shot itself in the head out of shame”. “The actors were phoning it in so hard that it’s basically Verizon product placement”. Along, of course, with the beginnings of the miniature think piece to take up the bulk of the article that could be subtitled something like “why Hollywood keeps fucking up video game movies”.

I suppose that I should be given some lecture about critical professionalism and withholding judgment until I witness the art itself, but I sat through Getaway so:

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I don’t play Warcraft. Well, I played Warcraft III, like, fifteen years ago, but remember almost nothing about it other than the fact that I liked Starcraft better. But I’ve never played the MMORPG on account of hating other people.

The consensus among players of the Warcraft games on the Internet seems to be that this was exactly the movie that they were looking for. The usual disconnect between fanboys and people with actual taste (see the Alien Asshole vs. Rich Douche fiasco for reference) isn’t really applicable here. Video game and roleplaying game movies are terrible, and generally speaking the fans absolutely loathe them.

Between that and the fact that Pirates of the Caribbean with Orcs garnered 60% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, all I can really come to the conclusion is that the vast majority of movie critics are just fucking idiots when it comes to the fantasy genre.

In any case, Warcraft is currently sitting at 24% on Rotten Tomatoes, which makes it the all-time lowest-rated movie that I insist is a good movie. Not a dumb but entertaining movie, not a bad movie that a fan of the genre can still love, not a flawed movie with enough interesting bits to redeem it. A good movie.

If you keep track of such things, it’s also a film that features a trio of strong female characters, two of whom are played by actresses of color. Most probably wouldn’t expect a movie like Warcraft to not only pass the Bechdel test, but to do so with conversations between Ruth Negga and Paula Patton.

The film has outstanding CGI, lacking all of the persistent pitfalls that plague its general usage in films like this. Objects and characters have real weight and presence, they move and feel like real things instead of high resolution cartoons that don’t obey physical intuition. This isn’t just a way of excusing the film’s problems because it looks pretty. It’s to emphasize that the movie manages to create a real and vibrant world, packed with characters (like griffons, dire wolves, and ten foot tall orcs) that simply could not be put onto screen without overwhelming CGI.

The tools are used with nuance and artistry that Peter Jackson could only dream of as he threw the toddler-logic of barrel battles and running up midair rocks onto his screen. It’s the little things here: the way a character play-fights with his griffon, running his fingers through the feathers and gripping its beak. The way that in one scene an orc tenderly strokes the pregnant belly of his wife, while in another scene a human can barely lift one finger of that unconscious hand.

The film raises more questions than it answer, in terms of the world. It doesn’t explain everything, what is seen in early scenes does not automatically get cut and pasted later to be a Chekov’s gun. It allows there to be mysteries in its world, not because they’re not thought out, but because the characters don’t feel a need to step aside and give exposition dumps to the audience about things they already know. That’s what a dense and real world feels like; it has texture and detail other than what is immediately needed for the plot. This does not make the world nonsensical, as is being charged by many critics; it is in fact exactly what makes the world in the film seem so alive and real.

The story is surprising in just how densely packed it is. This is not the formula blockbuster movie of four set-piece action scenes interspersed with nonsensical filler. Action tends to be quick, brutal, and exceedingly well-directed so that you can visually appreciate exactly what is happening, and the logic of the characters involved. No shaky-cam bullshit. And it features a climactic duel that instead of being six minutes of slugging it out, is jaw-dropping exactly because of the brilliant way that it lasts six seconds instead.

It is also a film that aims for the wonderful gray areas of characters, instead of neatly fitting them into boxes. They are living and breathing, complex instead of just slotted into villain, hero, and comic relief. They have complexity, make mistakes, make sacrifices, and above all have very well written and considered opinions and decisions. These are not characters whose actions are determined by plot logic, but by their own internal logics.

And in doing so it makes the story that much more dense and colorful. The orcs are not simply the bad guys. The humans are not simply the good guys. All the problems could not be solved in three minutes if everyone would talk to each other instead of following the plot railroad. Everything is not wrapped up in a neat bow by the time the curtains fall.

I was deeply cynical about the film subtitling itself “The Beginning”, but rather than ending up being a movie that refuses to resolve the main plot and just sets itself up for the next movie, this is a movie that earns that subtitle. It tells a gorgeous and complex story, with a beginning and end, which nonetheless sets up a world in which new and terrible problems arise from the resolution of this first story. It’s a film of Pyrrhic victories and killing off half the main cast. It deserves credit for putting all its cards on the table and going full Empire Strikes Back instead of going for the happy ending.

This is an excellent fantasy film that is well worth seeing.



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