Wednesday, May 25, 2016

'Warcraft: The Beginning' (2016) directed by Duncan Jones

I can't believe that the best videogame movie is still Paul W.S. Anderson's 1995 schlock B-flick Mortal Kombat. Undisputed colossi of the medium: Final Fantasy, Super Mario Bros, Silent Hill, Resident Evil, Prince of Persia, Doom, Tomb Raider, all have stumbled when it comes a cinematic adaptation, the end products ranging from just-plain-bad to mindblowing terribleness.

Despite its hot young director, its $100 million budget and impressive CGI characters, Warcraft does nothing to change this.

Based on Blizzard Entertainment's Warcraft franchise, which incorporates a real-time strategy series and a hugely successful online roleplaying game, the film (ominously subtitled 'The Beginning') introduces us to the troubled world of Azeroth, where fantasy creatures of all stripes mingle in a hard-won peace. Meanwhile, on a dying planet, a race of tusked, green and muscular orcs makes a desperate plan for survival. Constructing a dark magic portal, they transport a war party to Azeroth. Their mission is to take control of this world, construct another portal and bring their entire race over for general death and destruction.

Caught up all this drama are perpetua-smirking human warrior Anduin (Travis Fimmel), Orc Chieftain-with-a-conscience Durotan (Toby Kebbell), half-Orc sex warrior Garona (Paula Patton), wizard Medivh (Ben Foster) and evil Orc mage Gul'dan (Daniel Wu). Bringing up the rear are countless more characters with silly names and sillier outfits, most of whom end up fodder for the film's climactic fights.

So, Warcraft the movie is pretty crap. I'm sorry but there it is. My main problem (above the cliched script and flat performances) is that Azeroth is both dull and incredibly kitsch. No doubt that's heresy to those who've happily immersed themselves for thousands of hours in its virtual towns, forests and dungeons, but creating your own avatar, making friends setting out to explore together is a very different prospect to settling down and passively observing the place.

It's basically 'yer average sub-Tolkien ripoff: a melange of elves, wizards and dwarves and stock fantasy creatures. Aesthetically it's an off-putting combo of primary coloured neon and tacky Donald Trumpian armour; all gleaming gold filigree and gigantic shoulder pauldrons. The result is an off-puttingly plastic universe, one that's largely clean, ordered and artificial. The inevitable comparison is to Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy - where (for just one example) if you saw a guy in a suit of armour you could generally understand it as a practical thing a person might conceive, design and wear. In Warcraft the armour looks like it popped out of a chest as a reward for defeating a particularly difficult boss. Which I suppose makes sense.

"So what?" you might think. Well, subtle things like having practical and aesthetic grounding (or even just a bit of dirt on them) makes the big fantastical elements much easier to swallow. In Warcraft it's all neon-glowy-magic, fantastic beasts and portals across time from the get-go, but without the grounding it is impossible to take it seriously, particular when the film insists on being so crushingly po-faced.

On top of this is the (no doubt commercially minded) decision to cast young. Warcraft is a film really crying out for a stagey English actor with gravitas to sell us on stuff like 'fell magic' or whatever. Instead you get a cast that looks more like as if they're to ComicCon than off to war. So. the feared 'Guardian' wizard looks like he could play bass in a college band, a warrior in his early 30s mourns the death of his 23 year old son and the King of all the land looks maybe 35. 

But these all pale into comparison next to the disaster that's Paula Patton's Garona. Painted green like some Captain Kirk conquest, she's saddled with joke-shop quality fangs and a cringeworthy and uncomfortable looking 'battle bikini'. Maybe, maybe a top-tier actor could have powered through that stuff, but Paula Patton (who has my deepest sympathy) isn't that. She's got kind of character design decision where you wish someone on set had whispered "Dunc.. this really isn't working..." in the director's ear.

Of course, there is one element that isn't fresh-faced: the orcs. They are a triumph of technology and animation and, for 8 foot tall green warriormen, believable. They're the film's one unambiguously great thing, even if just to marvel at how far CGI has come. Things fall apart a bit when they have to interact with humans, but so long as it's just them on the screen you can at least appreciate top quality animation.

It's depressing to see Duncan Jones, a genuinely promising director come a cropper so badly. Moon and Source Code had a singular visual style, melding faintly Kubrickian geometry with icky body horror elements. There's none of that here; the direction is largely anonymous, aping the more generic elements of Peter Jackson, Ridley Scott and those who've dabbled in big budget fantasy.

I suspect part of the problem is that Jones is a self-professed fan of Warcraft. With a property like this you need a fresh pair of eyes - someone who will mercilessly slice away the flabby, ridiculous and fanservice-y stuff.

Warcraft is not an entertaining experience. It's a boring, ugly and deeply naff film that has flop written all over it. I hope Jones can bounce back from this.

Warcraft is on general release May 30th.

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