The first thing you have to forgive about the Warcraft movie is the orc teeth. Imagine a playground of bullies with underbites. The orc women have dainty lower jaw-fangs designed to snag their top lip. Their male mates swing around thumb-size tusks heavy with rings and pierced hoops. When a fighter dies, his tooth is snapped off and strung on a necklace. Alive and in 3-D, their plaque-fuzzed incisors stab at the audience. It'd be scarier if we weren't wondering how they brush.
From the neck down, it gets worse. The orcs wear dirty warthog skulls for shoulder pads, line their backs with skeleton spines, sprout thick fingernails, and carry a coating of grimy crust that sticks to their skin like dried peanut butter. As human Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel) grimaces, if orcs are around, you can tell by the smell.
And yet, orc chieftain Durotan (Toby Kebbell) has kind, green eyes. And yet, when he's in bed with his pregnant orc wife (Anna Galvin), they cuddle and crack jokes and punch each other in the shoulder like teenagers. And yet, you suddenly care about their marriage even though she and Durotan are literally capturing and killing human beings to fuel a magical portal built, cyclically, for the purpose of capturing and killing more human beings. And yet, though we were happy to skip orc wars after the last three Hobbit movies, though every cell in our body is rolling its eyes, we're in.
And yet, and yet, and yet. There's every reason to snigger at Warcraft, or avoid it altogether. I can't blame you. People who don't play the hugely popular video game have no hunger for yet another fantasy land populated with wizards and kings, where every proper name was either invented by refrigerator poetry — Frostwolf, Bronzebeard, Stormwind, Doomhammer — or by scattering Scrabble tiles and shrugging, "Yeah, Medivh works." Fans of Warcraft love it because they control their own plots. But every few minutes, director Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code), who cowrote the script with Charles Leavitt, thinks to put in strange, fresh beats — a character out of breath, a tiny stumble, an unexpected line delivery — that, combined, do the impossible. They make this standard, shopworn, CG-plated epic feel like its own monster.
That's all Jones. When he took over the script, it was the same old "man good, orcs bad" smash-’em-up. The theaters are full of flicks where the heroes are perfect (or adorkably perfect) and the villains are evil just because. Warcraft adds a wrinkle. It spends as much time with the orcs as it does with the humans, long enough to empathize with their culture's devotion to honor and loyalty. We see orcs begin to question their warlord Blackhand (Clancy Brown), especially when magician Gul'dan (Daniel Wu) casually vapes slaves for an energy buzz. And when the film cuts back to the humans, they're doing the same thing: wondering if they're trusting the right leaders, and struggling with hollow patriotic deaths. In the climactic battle scenes, we know everyone's conflicted motivations, even the grunts in the back who live only to be smashed. We understand their actions as if we were holding the joystick.
Yet the camera makes it clear that Jones is in control. Instead of the top-down view of player-gods, the movie cuts us down to size. The characters tower over the lens, stomping past us as we cower at their knees and smashing fists in our faces to cut to black. My ears rang. I liked it. Still, the screen is so alive it's unnerving. There are a few shots that spend four whole seconds soaking in a vista — mostly the orcs' village, a tent city under a wooden roller coaster — but otherwise the movie won't stop moving as the camera dodges hammers, ducks horses, and grabs onto a griffin's tailfeathers.
Warcraft's fidgetiness almost distracts from the mediocre animation. For the love of god, I don't want to see another glowing eyeball until I rewatch The NeverEnding Story. (Goofy finger electricity, you can stay.) If it kept us more flustered, we could even forgive the miscast performances, like Ben Foster's twerpy wizard and his chubby-cheeked understudy (Ben Schnetzer), who looks more like an overwhelmed law student. Few actors can handle the green screen. Two big moments get drained by flat reactions, and, even buried under pixels, Kebbell's orc hunk out-emotes every other human face. At least Fimmel's fierce human fighter is a worthy Tom Hardy knockoff. As a bonus, you can actually understand his dialogue.
Still, the main problem for this daffy blockbuster is that orcs aren't cool. It happens. Genre flicks go through trends: Wizards cede power to vampires, who get overrun by zombies, who get schooled by superheroes. No wonder Warcraft wanted to make this movie a decade ago. Post-Hobbit, it's passé. Audiences are fickle, but at least we're consistently so. (Hot chicks in body paint like Paula Patton's Garona never go out of style, though it'd be great if they did.) If the franchise survives to shoot a sequel — and there are plot twists here that genuinely make me wish it would — perhaps the mood will be friendlier. And even if not, here's hoping Warcraft continues being its own odd beast.