'The Witcher': A Soap Opera Fantasy That Attempts To Mask Its Shortcomings With A Big Budget [Review]

Cashing in on genre trends only leads to a sea of homogenized content quality that has next to nothing to say (see: most Marvel movies since Phase 3). Netflix’s newest fantasy expenditure, “The Witcher” is an exhibit-A example as to why big-budget IPs need to stop being greenlit simply because they’re based on something that’s popular within a select circle and have the potential to cash in a recently exposed part of the market. Because why try and write something original for fans that were disappointed with who ended up on some throne made of iron when you can pick up a rusty blade that’s about to break and put it in the hands of Superman, right?

Henry Cavill plays Geralt of Rivia, a monster hunter whose existence is as basic as his behavior of sitting alone with a pint of mead in dark inn corners. ”Sometimes there’s monsters. Sometimes there’s money. Rarely both. That’s the life,” Geralt tells a companion, a model of tried and tested solitary hero brooding. Adapted from a series of novels and short stories written by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski — that became a best-selling video game series, years later — Netflix’s show takes a monster-of-the-week type approach, and a few larger, initially disparate plotlines slowly converge, although never quite make sense.

While Geralt sleeps with women and slays creatures of the night, a young Princess named Ciri (Freya Allan) is forced to flee her regal world after it is ravaged by war. The early scenes in the pilot with her royal family closely resemble a more courtly show like “Game of Thrones,” but as soon as the battle sequence begins red flags are immediately raised, wonky shot coverage and poor special effects plaguing a siege on Ciri’s castle. Meanwhile, a farm girl named Yennefer (Anya Chalotra), who is cruelly bullied because of her timid nature and birth defects, is sold into witchcraft slavery, where she starts displaying powerful magic abilities (the rules of which the show never makes as clear as its dire consequences).

The first few episodes follow Geralt and his misadventures with a bard, who desperately needs to find a new line of work because he’s horrible at singing. Not unlike “The Mandalorian,” each episode almost seems more centered around an action, or world-building idea, than a narrative. “A devil, he’s been stealing all our grain!” Unlike that show, however, “The Witcher” is also playing a very long term plot game involving a (you guessed it!) mythical prophecy — that seems to be most closely tied to Ciri’s storyline, though Yennefer’s has been better developed thus far— which just becomes more overly convoluted as it goes along. It’s only a mask of dense storytelling; when you get down to brass tacks, everything about the series is uber basic and extremely soapy. The show comes off like a CW genre series with Netflix’s craft services budget. 

Speaking of, considering the purported price tag, the effects and action are kind of abhorrent. Castles being shrouded in various forms of weather in wide shots and shot claustrophobically at most all other times. A forest set is lit by a sphere of protruding sunlight, showering the screen with light that looks painted in the background. You have some gratuitous, added-in-post gut spilling here, some frozen flesh cannibalism there, and lots of cuts to canted compositions that are straining for any sort of expressive vibrancy, plus some Zack Snyder slow-mo ramps.

To quote “Marriage Story,” “The Witcher” “fulfills the same need that certain fucked up porn does.” It’s tensely dramatic scenes often teetering on laugh out loud hysterical with its wooden acting and atrocious dialog. It can be as dour as “Game of Thrones”  and as hokey as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” but does neither very well, and the tones are prone to swap, scene to scene, and sometimes even moment to moment. One second, a major character is being killed off in a brutal fashion, in the next Henry Cavill is punching his bard bestie in the balls for telling him he smells like death and onions. (Sex! Vengeance! Humor! This show’s got it all!)

Most of the writers made their mark working on TV projects ranging from “The Vampire Diaries” to “Iron Fist,” the showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich having done a lot of heavy lifting on “The Defenders,” and, sadly, the storytelling quality here is on par with those series. Money can’t make up for tried and tested writing cliches – especially in a subset of fantasy that is both derivative and dated. The production side of things doesn’t aid anything. When actors look so awkward in their own skin that they come across like cosplayers and sexual assault trauma is treated as a soapy plot point (an episode finds a “strong woman” jumping our Witcher’s bones after revealing she was raped; their relationship later turns violent), it’s not only beyond difficult to believe that this expansive world is a real, lived-in place, but it doesn’t seem as if the creative parties have anything to say with it other than surface-level commentary on barbaric human behavior (the monsters aren’t as monstrous as the people, you see).

It’s really a struggle to wrap your head around who this show was made for. It’s certainly not for anyone who values putting skill points into constitution or intellect when they play role-playing games, it’s all strength and endurance, and a whole lot of tropey groveling. Worse, the wink, wink nature of the oddly misplaced humor makes clear that the writers are clearly trying to have their cake and eat it too, which comes off like an eleven-year-old who’s satisfied enough by dipping a finger into the frosting before licking it off instead of making an actual meal. Maybe it was simply designed for the hordes of gamer drones who will click play no matter what, not unlike Duncan Jones’ “Warcraft,” but at least that was an epic failure of grotesque mysticism, “The Witcher” is simply redundant and repetitive discount fantasy with a budget that creates the illusion of quality. [D+]