“I’m the enemy of exposition. I feel there’s no need to overstate.” So said actor Anson Mount, known for such films as Burning Palms, the remake of Straw Dogs, and Non-Stop. If this is really how he feels, he’d be perfectly content watching Warcraft, a film in which explaining things and providing context was apparently a secondary concern. It’s a noisy, aggressive, visually assaulting film that mistakes action sequences and special effects for genuine storytelling. The fight scenes come off as melees, with indecipherable blurs of humans and fairytale creatures wielding weapons and punching and clobbering each other for reasons that mostly remain elusive, save for the fact that it’s expected in movies like this.
I grant you that tremendous effort went into creating the film’s look, which certainly does pop out through the process of IMAX 3D. We have fantasy worlds where castles tower high above surrounding woodlands, and there are an assortment of creatures, including orcs, griffons, and dwarves. We spend a great deal of time looking at orcs, with their hulking frames and their beast-like fangs protruding from their lower jaws. There are also kings, knights, armored guards, and wizards. The wizards are very prominent. To be more precise, the magic they produce is very prominent; far too many shots are bathed in either glowing blue or glowing green light. There were times when I felt the intention was to blind us.
I’ll be damned if I can tell you what this movie is about. Characters are often introduced, and they deliver lines, and they make decisions that lead to actions, but there’s no real sense that it adds up to anything resembling a plot. It’s just a hopelessly confusing jumble of names, places, affiliations, and betrayals. The reason for this, I have no doubt, is because the filmmakers were keenly aware of the film’s target demographic, namely gamers who are intimately familiar with the the series of video games on which it’s based. Do you really want me to go off on another rant about the how wrong it is to pander to a fanbase and neglect general audiences? Why should I bother, anyway? No one seems to be listening.
The orcs fit right in with the genre, and it makes perfect sense that, with one exception, they were brought to life with computers rather than greasepaint and prosthetics. But there’s no reason I can find why their voices had to be so electronically altered that they were barely intelligible. If you want us to make sense of why they left their dying homeworld to invade another, and why the primary orc character (voiced by Toby Kebbell) is compelled to side with the humans and bring down the orc overlord for his misuse of power, wouldn’t it help if we’re made to actually understand the things they’re saying to one another?
The human actors – including Travis Fimmel as a knight, Ben Foster as a magic-wielding guardian, Paula Patton as a curiously half-human orc, Dominic Cooper as a king, and Ben Schnetzer as a novice wizard (or, as they’re called in the Warcraft universe, a magi) – perform about as well as can be expected, which isn’t much of a compliment; they seem so adrift, so emotionally at a distance, as if they couldn’t make sense of the material all throughout filming. God knows that’s how I would feel if I was in their place. Or perhaps they were misdirected, and they unwisely went along with it. If they saw something in the material apart from a guaranteed paycheck, I can’t imagine what it could have been.
The most astounding thing about Warcraft is that it was directed and co-written by Duncan Jones, who in 2009 wowed me with Moon, a thoughtful, deliberately-paced science fiction drama in which Sam Rockwell quite literally faces himself on a lunar mission. I wasn’t quite so taken with his second feature, Source Code, in which a … scientifically altered Jake Gyllenhaal repeatedly investigated a passenger train explosion via a time loop, but at least it kept me engaged with its pacing and tension. This is what he has to offer now? Armies of fantasy creatures fighting each other? Movies like this prove, with all due respect to Mr. Mount, that some movies do indeed need to overstate, or even just plain state.