Some Orcs Are Greener Than Others
Wouldn't it be nice if they instituted a quota where, every year, each big studio was obliged to do at least one major blockbuster which was an original story? Not a sequel, not a remake, not a reboot (whatever one of those is supposed to be), not based on a comic, a novel, another movie, or a computer game. I know it'll never happen, but imagine how it would transform the cinema landscape.
I say this, of course, as I survey a release schedule prominently featuring a new Tarzan movie, a movie based on Assassin's Creed, a fifth Bourne movie, an Independence Day sequel... I mean, not that I'm not going to see most of these films – you have to admit another Damon/Greengrass Bourne is a tasty prospect – but even so. In much of the publicity material, all the talk is of 'the latest instalment' and 'incredible visual effects' with next to no mention of story, characters, ideas.
Front-loading a review of Duncan Jones' Warcraft: The Beginning with all this stuff is probably bad form as it probably tips you off as to the general tenor of everything I'm going to say. This is the adaptation of the juggernaut computer gaming franchise which has been floating around in development for about a decade. Now, given the quality of Jones' other movies (Moon and Source Code) you would usually be quite optimistic about the prospects for this one. On the other hand, this is a big-budget fantasy movie, something which even the best directors have struggled with, and a computer game adaptation, a genre which has produced more utter disasters than any other.
The film opens with Generic Fantasyland being invaded by Orcs from another dimension, much to the concern of the locals. Some of the Orcs are a healthy apple-green sort of shade. Others are more your regular flesh tone. Generally, the colour of your Orc seems to reflect their morality: greener Orcs seem to be more evil. Does this constitute racism towards Orcs on the part of the film-makers? I'm not sure. Either way these are big chunky Orcs with hefty tusks and a love for big hammers and improbable costume jewellry. An especially pink, and therefore decent, Orc (mo-capped by Toby Kebbell), is along for the invasion, but troubled by the unhealthy magic employed by their leader.
Meanwhile, the residents of Generic Fantasyland are in a bit of a tizzy as the nature of the Orc threat becomes clear. Leading the defence is Sir Generic Fantasyname (Travis Fimmel – no, me neither), and a bunch of other characters who are an awkward mixture of archetype and stereotype. Actually going into detail about the plot is quite tricky, I'm finding – there's a lot of riding about and fighting and people growling tersely to each other, and a lot of flashy CGI magic that looks like something from a Harry Potter film or a Marvel superhero movie, but in terms of actual plot and character development... it all just slips through the fingers of my memory. I saw this movie less than twelve hours ago, as I write, and yet most of the details of it seem to have slipped through the fingers of my memory.
What exactly do I recall? Well, there's a bombastic, Poledouris-esque score from Ramin Djawadi which I quite liked, huge amounts of garish CGI, a bizarrely decorous scene of Orc childbirth, Paula Patton in a Raquel Welch-ish fur bikini...
Actually, I feel obliged to mention that Patton's character is both friendly and very green, thus proving the general green-is-bad principle does not always hold. The thing is that Patton has, for want of a better expression, greened up to play the part. Given all the fuss about there not being any actual Egyptian performers in the forthcoming (over here)
Gods of Egypt, should we be surprised at the lack of an outcry over the lack of genuine Orcs in Warcraft? Is this another example of anti-Orc prejudice on the part of the film-makers?
...where were we? Oh, yes. Well, the art direction is quite good, though not what you'd call understated, and in the end the story takes a few odd turns you wouldn't normally expect from a film of this kind – some people die whom you might expect to live, and some people make it to the end credits who you'd normally expect to croak it. I'm not sure this is necessarily a good idea, because stories tend to be the shape they are for a reason, but it does a tiny amount in the way of making this film distinctive.
Many years ago I was lucky enough to interview a fairly successful writer of thrillers and horror novels who was at pains to make it clear that he did not write fantasy, because he considered it to be the equivalent of cheating at cards to win paper money. I was reminded of his words while watching Warcraft: The Beginning, because this is the most heftless and bland kind of fantasy. Here we are in the city of Stormwind. Why is it called Stormwind? Well, it's just a cool name, isn't it? The King of Stormwind can call on the assistance of the mystical guardian Medivh (Ben Foster), who commands all sorts of spectacular mystical forces. Why do they have this arrangement? How did he get the job? How exactly does magic work in this world? Well... it just suits the plot that things are as they are, doesn't it? And here's young Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), a mage from the flying city of Dalaran... why does it fly? Do all these names have any kind of thought-through etymology to them? Or are they just composed with the assistance of the Scrabble bag?
In short, there's no sign of any consistent underpinning to the world of Warcraft, no coherent conceptual basis. If this place has any kind of detailed history or back-story to it, it's not made clear in the film at all. All we're left with are just people racing about waving swords and hammers and the CGI bill racing upwards at supersonic speed. As a result the film is almost impossible to engage with as an actual drama, as opposed to simply a colourful, kinetic spectacle. (Films like this do at least remind you of what a miracle Peter Jackson's original Lord of the Rings films were.)
Warcraft is a fairly joyless, gruelling experience, summoning up memories of a plethora of dodgy fantasy films from years gone by – everything from Dungeons and Dragons to Eragon. (I'd compare it to Krull, but it's frankly not nearly as much fun.) But the most depressing thing about it is that there is no sign of Duncan Jones in it – his other films were smart, imaginative pieces of SF, built around strong central characters. This is just an amorphous glob of generic stuff, seemingly directed by a computer programme, with one eye firmly on the franchise: note, for instance, that subtitle, plus the fact that the story just stops rather than actually reaching a conclusion. Technically proficient though this movie is, I strongly doubt it has the potential to appeal to anyone not steeped in the computer game, and I also doubt that audience is big enough to turn this film into a hit. I just hope this doesn't turn out to be another instance of a promising directorial career being utterly derailed by a brush with a big budget.