An indie darling losing the track underneath the gluttonous weight of the mechanical, big-wig corporate tentpole machine isn’t exactly a new quadrant of the cinematic continuum, but it’s still disappointing when it happens. After a spellbinding little one-actor haunt and a less spellbinding, but still solid, middle-weight entertainment, Duncan Jones’ clout as a director is following the expected “each one a little less” trajectory of likability most directors co-opted by the blockbuster conglomerate tend to exhibit. Jones has amassed enough of a clout with only two good films that he has proven himself a genuine find, if not a prodigy in the cinematic field. He’s no charlatan, in other words, which is why the failure of this latest writhing-but-seemingly-unable-to-be-killed video-game-to-film dream is all the more disappointing.
Not that it is terrible, a fact that only somehow disappoints further by mitigating the deranged joy to be had with a film that struggles to accept, or willfully avoids, the norms of corporate cinema. The heralded Battlefield Earth messianic misfire is nowhere to be found in this mostly straight-laced, committee-designed film that is ultimately too buttoned-up and safeguarded to actually fail with any real verve or gusto. Structurally, it’s a complete wash, with a post-Dawn of the Planet of the Apes desire to modulate and mediate its emotions and characters so evenly and with such balance that any personality or perspective is excised in favor of an admirable moral grayness that, when executed this ham-fistedly and clunkily, feels more like moral-emptiness.
The scene structure of Warcraft is almost comically mechanical, shifting from “orc scene” to “human scene” to “villain scene” to “hero scene” with too-cute, too-labored thoughtfulness that sands down any potential freedom for the film to imbibe in tangents or differing energies. It is, above all, a very curated film, a work contaminated with the modern blockbuster’s mostly debilitating need to “mean something” in its unending quest to be taken seriously. Furthermore, Warcraft ingratiatingly runs forward with this need until there’s no freedom for the film to do anything else at all.
Even worse, Warcraft is semi-confused about how its deluge of characters actually fit into this violent even-handedness, a befuddlement that feels less like the film is admirably questioning its too-rigorous structure and more as though it can’t actually figure out how to fit its puzzle pieces into its oppressively straight-laced suit. For instance, main human (and kind-of main protagonist wholesale) Sir Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel) is a rakish sort that desperately needs a more free-form, comically-inclined film for his sub-Errol Flynn personality to flourish, but Warcraft is totally unwilling to gift him it.
The film painfully analogizes Anduin with Durotan (Tony Kebbell), an orc chieftain concerned about the increasing rot of the orc horde, led by mystical warlock Gul’dan (Daniel Wu), who opens a portal to the human/elf/dwarf world to escape the decay of the orc homeworld. In between these warring factions we find Dominic Cooper (King Wrynn), a good-natured human ruler, Garona (Paula Patton), a half-orc half-human who too-symbolically reflects the possibility for unity between the two races, and Medivh (Ben Foster), a seemingly evil human mage who is a copy-paste of Gul’dan. Then there’s Ogrim (Robert Kazinsky), Durotan’s friend who is torn between his allegiance to the orc horde and Durotan’s rebellious understanding that the very rot of their homeworld may actually be the result of Gul’dan’s fetid, moral-corrupting magic to begin with, Ginger-Spice, BA Baracus, Scooby-Doo… Or, well, it’s frequently impossible to distinguish between the random variegated corporeal spaces on the screen; this isn’t quite at Chronicles of Riddick levels of pretension and unnecessary narrative contortion, but even the distant rumor of that benighted film induces a shiver.
Ostensibly, the film’s central conflict is instigated out of Gul’dan’s willingness to sacrifice other life forms (human life forms, specifically) in order to open the portal to the human world where the orcs can live anew. But the Byzantine, overweening screenplay fails to juggle what feels like a dozen major characters and arcs and moral conundrums until the film exhaustively flails around sans center or bedrock looking for a hope and finding only a toxic mass of malignant complication. As textbook a case of blockbuster cinema confusing “more” with “better” hasn’t been seen in a good while.
Which is distressing, unfortunately, because the bones of an aesthetic vision are strewn all over the film, from Jones’ tactile, whirling atmospherics within individual scenes to Simon Duggan’s crisp, wonderfully-saturated cinematography (which captures the bon vivant derring-do of the game world and skewers the brown-and-grey doldrums of most modern blockbusters) to Gavin Bocquet’s fairly sublime production design which feels both weighty and satisfyingly cartoonish. The vision of an earlier time in blockbuster history, more aesthetically tied to the tight-and-slight animated tales of the ‘80s, is in this film’s blood, but none of these aesthetic choices corroborates the more modern “take me seriously” pile-on of screenplay decisions. It smells vaguely of being imprisoned in a disgruntled story (by Chris Matzen in the broad strokes) and Jones doing anything in his directorly power to run in the opposite direction. The feeling is of a film that wants to be both buttoned-up and screw-loose, and the tonal clash is stultifying and invidious more than enlivening.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows
Most blockbuster cinema is ensnared in a deal-with-the-devil form of false-angelic status. These films pretend to morally investigate honor, morality, or whatever your retread theme of choice is while ultimately enshrining themselves in the very violence and individual volition they propose to critique. While those films are busy reenacting their Battle of the Bulge, growing longer by the year in their aspiration to throw every moral qualm at the wall until the should-be-hurricane form of a blockbuster becomes like churning butter, the second Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot film, subtitled Out of the Shadows, is almost liberating in a none-the-wiser childish glee that is at least rampant, if not properly rampaging. Its subtitle might refer to its untamed, youthful indiscretion and willy-nilly refusal to cater to the morally grey, shadowy turpitude beleaguering blockbusters that wish to pay lip service to depth without actually investigating their complication with any rigor.
Rather than actually implementing the rigor, Out of the Shadows is proud to rigor-less, even tasteless. Not that it has calamitous intent or actually investigates the blockbuster form with any sort of nefarious, pointed trivialism, but the gossamer fabric of the film that recalls the bon vivant early blockbusters of the ‘80s and ‘90s is semi-amusing in a world where every blockbuster feels the itch to mean something. Out of the Shadows is refreshingly barren of more than a gesture or two of “we’re social outcast” false-progressivism, preferring instead a relatively insouciant stream of amusingly bad jokes and endearingly stupefying, belligerent action scenes directed with at least a modicum of flair and stream-of-consciousness mania. Like it’s floating from moment to moment on the coattails of its own energy, the flippant, vehicular movement of the camera is even enough to approximate near-rakish grace.
All this said, Out of the Shadows is hardly the premier example of the form; even on these terms, it’s essentially a pale version of James Gunn’s 2014 knockabout The Guardians of the Galaxy, without the witty camaraderie or flailing, flying visual gusto that helped that film feel like the raffish, hang-dog outsider in the increasingly homogenously false-serious Marvel machine. One can vaguely admire the devil-may-care cartoon physics of Out of the Shadows, but it is never enough to translate into a genuinely wild and wooly aesthetic, unlike say Mad Max: Fury Road (which also held the benefit of being a masterclass in nuts-and-bolts filmmaking mechanics and a social treatise of sublime import, a triple threat of a film).
So this sleazy, fizzy, lunatic-excess nature of Dave Green’s neon-tinged film is occasionally ecstatic, even if it more a style than a form proper. Mid-film excursions like a waterfall-cum-tank-cum-talking-purple-mohawked-pig showcase are admirably fast and loose with logic and gallant in their reckless always-topping-theirselves inebriation. Occasionally approaching levels of geometric fascination at abstract shapes rushing through the air, there’s a nice tinge of showmanship that closes in on an improbably Cinema of Attractions level of “just because we can” carnival amusements. But the spinning top incandescence of the film’s sheer indifference to consequence or narrative cohesion is only a half-hearted whimper compared to the timidity of its failure to move beyond the reclusive realms of reality.
That Out of the Shadows is alienated from the current blockbuster norm is nearly a rebellion, but it’s hardly a revolution or a coup (unlike, say, the Wachowskis’ cotton-candy poetry Speed Racer, which succeeded in turning not-giving-a-care into a full-on pop-art whirlwind aesthetic). With the four nominally Italian reptiles, the theoretical joy of a blockbuster that is content to revel in its adolescent nature is ultimately overpowered by the memory of blockbusters that have actually achieved that goal with an improvisational vigor lacking here, and the hope of future blockbusters that may hopefully rekindle this far-flung memory again.