Director Duncan Jones’ obvious love for the video game source material makes Warcraft a visually arresting and surprisingly engaging adventure. Warlock Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) opens a portal from the dying orc world with dark magic known as ‘The Fel’. Chieftain Durotan (Toby Kebbell) becomes disenchanted with Gul’dan’s leadership, hoping to forge an alliance with humanity and save both worlds from destruction. On the human side is warrior Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), joining forces with keen mage apprentice Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) and (more reluctantly), with half-breed orc Garona (Paula Patton).
You’ll notice there’s a lot to keep in mind before we even dive into the meat of the story, but what I really appreciated about Warcraft’s storytelling is that it trusts you’ll keep up, starting at a sprint rather than taking ages dumping exposition into our screaming faces. To see the film dismissed out of hand as ‘dumb blockbuster film-making’ is especially biting, but the very opposite is true. Much like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, this film proves that big-budget behemoths can be intelligent and emotional. Both the orcs and humans have an equal dramatic presence: far from the generic hordes of lumbering beasts one might expect of similar fare, Durotan and fellow clansman Orgrim (Robert Kazinsky) are as well-drawn as their human counterparts, if not better.
It’s overstuffed, to be sure, but there’s enough invigoration in the visuals and occasional springs of humour to win the day: I cannot overstate how much joy it brought me to see a fantasy film sporting such vibrant colours and, God forbid, a little self-awareness. At one point, a magical McGuffin does something unexpected and, rather than diving into a long-winded explanation of its origin and backstory, an elder mage shakily remarks “…it’s never done that before!”
The orcs themselves are an incredible creation from Industrial Light and Magic, reminding us yet again why they stand as the rightful kings of special effects. The face of Durotan (filling the film’s opening shot) is aged, weathered and scarred as well as any physical make-up could contend with, but it is the tangible regret in actor Toby Kebbell’s voice for years of bloodshed that sells the character. But he is only a single element of the gorgeous production design, brought to life with passion by those who have examined every detail of the game. Spells cast by guardian Medivh (an appreciatively creepy Ben Foster) are not just a flare of blue light, but form in intriguing patterns and symbols. The books in his library all have individually crafted spines and the trophies borne upon the backs of Durotan and his clan could tell a hundred stories more.
Simply as a result of how much lore is packed into such an abrupt running time, some resolutions are rushed and a wedge of the supporting cast are often left behind. But what’s noticeable is that you do miss them. Jones’ film-making has always been about putting the characters first, and that is what makes the finale (though undoubtedly arresting in its exuberant battle scenes) an inherently emotional event. It informs those of us not familiar with the game why it bore the title Orcs and Humans, not Orcs versus Humans. As someone who knows nothing of the original RTS, the million user-strong MMORPG or it’s universe (save for what characters appear in the spin-off card game), and as someone who worried that Jones’ signature could be erased by the demands of fulfilling a franchise quota, colour me impressed.
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For this review I’ll be focusing on the standard one-disc 2D release. Promotions for Jason Bourne and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter experience at Universal Orlando play before the main menu, but (as with most Universal releases) can be skipped. Shot with Arri Alexa SXT Plus cameras and presented in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio, the images created by cinematographer Simon Duggan to bring this extraordinary world to life are near-perfect, and revealed details I missed even on the big screen. For example, as our heroes set off from Stormwind, there’s a brief moment where Khadgar looks back across the rolling plains towards the distant city, and a large river off to the left reveals a tiny watchtower beside the mouth… one can only imagine what visual Easter eggs the 4K UHD release will pick up. Perhaps my favourite element of Jones’ film upon first viewing was the use of a bright, primary colour palette; a rarity nowadays in a genre so frequently reliant on being washed-out and gritty, or resorting to an oversaturated blue-and-orange mess.
Thankfully, those gorgeous colours (some of which I felt got a little lost in cinema projection) absolutely pop on Blu-ray disc, from the sky blues of Medivh’s magic to the lime green waves of Gul’Dan’s Fel sorcery. The incredibly detailed live-action production design and pin-precise work of Industrial Light and Magic shine equally, with the sweat, dirt and loose hairs just as crisp on the digital characters as they are on their human counterparts. There’s some haziness in the final action sequence as hordes of mo-cap orcs clash with physical extras, but for the most part, outlines and edges are well-defined: I think it’s safe to say we’ve finally escaped the fuzzy blue/green-screen silhouettes that have hounded digital film-making for decades.
For those with an above-average home setup, the Dolby Atmos audio track is certainly a plus, but the standard DTS 7.1 Master Audio still holds up pretty well in the transition from silver to small screen. Though the bass-heavy, crunching sounds of the orc weaponry (which helped sell the characters as thundering, physical creatures) feel a tad weaker on home disc, the dialogue is clear, even from the large-toothed orc characters, and amongst the din of large battle scenes awash with background yelling and clattering weaponry. Ramin Djawadi’s score provides a solidly rumbling, harrumphing backdrop, with the recurring main theme (one of the few actually hummable tracks from a film this year) blaring triumphantly as the credits roll.
Given how much of a financial disappointment Warcraft turned out to be (at least in Europe and the USA), it’s actually rather heartening to see it given such a wealthy collection of extras. There’s a neat gag reel which gives us the usual chuckles as actors fumble their lines, but also (as none of the effects in these clips are completed) an insight into just how much of the film’s sets, props and locations were created for real. This is continued into a series of short featurettes focusing on the history of the Warcraft games, the lead actors, visual effects and motion-capture work, the costumes and the stunts. All feature interviews with director Duncan Jones, the actors, producers and higher-ups from Blizzard, notably the original creator of the Warcraft universe, Chris Metzen. There’s a 50-minute motion comic that serves as a prequel to the film, and the original proof-of-concept teaser for the film from 2013, detailing a short encounter between a human and an orc that eventually became the films’ prologue.
There are eleven deleted or extended scenes, and while one or two are merely incidental (a prolonged arrival at the Lion’s Pride Inn, plus an extension of Lothar’s visit to Ironforge), a great deal of them – when considered within the wider context of the film as a whole – would easily have served to prevent it from feeling quite so rushed in places. There’s a scene of the orcs discussing the Fel around a campfire (featuring a shot of Robert Kazinsky’s Orgrim that was one of the earliest images released from the film) and an extended version of Garona’s conversation with a mourning Lothar, both of which include a little more character development than we got in the final film, even hinting at a possible romance between the latter pair. King Llane’s council meeting features a few extraneous lines of dialogue, (one of which was most definitely cut due to strong language) and Ruth Negga’s Lady Taria is allowed more screen-time.
The Final Verdict
I’m willing to bet good money that – despite its struggle to gain a foothold in cinemas – Warcraft is sure to gain a larger following on home release, especially with a release as well-presented as this. The video is exceptional, the audio soars and the extras are packed.
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