Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 31 March 2020

Review: 'The Witcher' needs to slay 'Game of Thrones' comparisons to survive

The new Netflix fantasy drama is based on the novels of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowksi

 Henry Cavill plays Gerald of Rivia in The Witcher, premiering on Netflix on December 20, 2019 Katalin Vermes / Netflix via AP
 Henry Cavill plays Gerald of Rivia in The Witcher, premiering on Netflix on December 20, 2019 Katalin Vermes / Netflix via AP

Netflix’s announcement of their adaptation of The Witcher, Polish author Andrzej Sapkowksi’s beloved set of fantasy novels and short stories, into a television series always meant it was going to be labelled the next Game of Thrones.

It’s not surprising, as the very first scene of the series - premiering today on the streaming site - has a deer drinking from a secluded lake, only for the animal to immediately become startled when Henry Cavill’s Gerald of Rivia suddenly emerges from the water fighting a terrifying, tentacle creature.

Not only does The Witcher immediately mirror Game Of Thrones’ penchant for using animals as metaphor, but the location, fight, use of a mythical creature, and pretty much all of Cavill’s look and delivery also seem to have been inspired by the HBO mega-hit.

Far from this being a criticism, though, this blatant tip of the hat works well, as it immediately feels recognisable and accessible to usher in Game of Thrones fans left bereft at the conclusion of their favourite show.

But The Witcher’s showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich and cast and crew have absolutely no intention of merely remaking or treading over the same ground as its illustrious predecessor. So for the rest of the pilot we are given an awful lot of information to digest regarding the world and mythology of The Witcher, most of which unfortunately fails to land.

However, since this is a Netflix show, though, this might actually prove to be a positive for the streaming site, as the massive amount of backstory and exposition revealed should provoke viewers to re-watch episodes in order to keep up. But, upon initial viewing, all it does is lag and subdue the show.

It also doesn’t help that the characters are underwhelming. Cavill, in particular, seems to have been taken straight out of Westeros. Despite looking statuesque, he severely lacks the charisma in portraying the innate wisdom required for such a leading role.

The rest of the ensemble don’t fare much better, too. They often feel like pale imitations of characters from across the fantasy genre, and there’s not enough done to make them distinctive.

Hopefully these are just teething problems, as The Witcher’s inability to either establish its lead characters runs the risk of make viewers turn off entirely.

That said, The Witcher does just enough to keep you captivated. First of all, there’s Alik Sakharov’s sumptuous direction. The former cinematographer, who directed four episodes of Game of Thrones, bathes the show in a mystical and hypnotic beauty that means it is always gorgeous to look at. Then, whenever The Witcher threatens to become overly laborious or tedious, a bombastic action sequence always arrives just in time to once again pique our interest.

This is not just the case for The Witcher’s pilot, as its opening three episodes all feel uneven but ultimately show enough promise to keep you interested. In fact, the most well rounded episode I was privy to was The Betrayer Moon, which is the third of the first season.

Unfortunately, I’d have to divulge too many spoilers to fully explain exactly why it worked so well, but by its culmination The Witcher’s various plot lines, haunting visuals and creatures all combine to create a show both idiosyncratic and all its own. Once again, the third episode is beautifully directed, this time by Alex Garcia Lopez, which suggests that Hissrich and Netflix have done a stupendous job at picking out the right talent behind the camera.

The Betrayer Moon should encourage viewers to stick with The Witcher’s throughout its first season, especially as it is just eight episodes long.

But it will be interesting to see whether or not that’s enough for The Witcher to emerge from the Game Of Thrones comparisons that it clearly encouraged. If it doesn’t establish its own tone, sensibilities and characters throughout the series, then its affection for Game of Thrones may be its undoing,

Updated: December 24, 2019 06:31 PM

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