Adapting a beloved property for the big screen is no easy task. There’s a constant juggling act between trying to make a movie that will please hardcore fans of the IP and a movie that will still be welcoming to those unversed in the franchise’s universe. It’s a delicate balance that Warcraft ultimately fails to nail, feeling so alienating to newcomers at times that it verges on unwatchable if this your first experience of the fantasy world of Azeroth. Though the film grows into its own skin considerably as the climax approaches, the first two-thirds are so poorly structured that many will have given up by then.
Requiring the audience to have some form of familiarity with the original source material is generally a poor strategy when it comes to big-budget blockbusters. Within the opening twenty minutes an unrelenting barrage of fantasy clichés and general nonsense is thrown at the audience with almost zero explanation. From ridiculous-sounding magic spells to even more ridiculous-sounding location names, it’s hard not to get lost in the sheer weight of lore unceremoniously dumped on you. A perfect example of this problem is a type of magic called the Fel, which is critical to the whole narrative, yet never properly explained to the audience. This approach to exposition is what makes Warcraft almost impossible to recommend to those unfamiliar with the gaming series on which the movie is based.
The pacing of the first act doesn’t help matters either. The audience is whisked away to location after location, introduced to a small army of characters without any breathing room. When coupled with the unexplained stream of Warcraft lore it makes for a frustrating start. Warcraft is a long-running video game franchise, so understandably there’s a lot of ground to cover, but there’s a real sense that screenwriters Charles Leavitt and Duncan Jones (who directs also) have bitten off far more than they can chew. Just when you start to get a grip on the events within the human city of Stormwind, you’re dragged to some other corner of the realm and the confusion starts anew.
Speaking of Duncan Jones, the film would be much poorer without him, and it’s not exactly a masterpiece with him at the helm. The British director adds some nice little visual touches and some of the sweeping panning shots are genuinely a marvel to watch unfold. Though he struggles with such a large-scale property in comparison to his previous two features, Moon and Source Code, which were both small in nature. Jones has already proved his talent on the indie circuit and though his first attempt with a bigger budget hasn’t been particularly successful, hopefully he’s given a shot at redemption, preferably with something original rather than a Warcraft sequel.
The plot revolves around a rather clichéd fight between humans and an invading race of Orcs. The latter have come to Azeroth after their home world has fallen into ruins. Though this is well-worn fantasy ground and not particularly interesting, there’s a refreshing conflictwithin the Orcs’ camp. The Orc sort-of-protagonist Durotan (Tobby Kebbell) finds himself at odds with the sinister leader of his kind, Gul’dan (Daniel Wu), creating a nice little power struggle within their ranks. Their conflict is based upon the latter’s use of the aforementioned fel magic, which is used to make Orcs more aggressive and powerful—plus it turns them from brown to green. Though it’s not exactly a deep wrinkle it does add some depth to a film otherwise sorely lacking in it.
In fact, you’ll find yourself constantly wishing the film would focus on the Orcs more often instead of the de facto human heroes. Though the Orcs may be generated by computers, they feel more real than the actual human cast, which is led by Dominic Cooper as King Llane Wrynn. Cooper’s performance is drab and dull, which is also true of his motley crew of knights and mages. Travis Fimmel portrays a supposedly charismatic knight who spends most of the film either being sulky or attempting to look macho. His shoehorned-in romance with half-human half-Orc Garona (Paula Patton) comes completely out of nowhere, and the attempts at emotional resonance that spring from it feel unearned and cheap.
The other major players are Ben Foster’s Medivh, a powerful magician who is sworn to protect the realm, and Ben Schnetzer’s Khadgar, a young mage who just sort of hangs around and appears whenever the narrative calls for it. Both magic wielders feel like little more than walking plot devices with their powers, and crucially their limitations, never set out. There isn’t a single compelling character on the human’s side, which has to be a concern if a second Warcraft movie is greenlit. The sequel-bait ending seems to suggest that moving forward the focus will be on the human-led Alliance rather than the “evil” Orc Horde.
Though Warcraft lore is stacked with multiple races belonging to two warring factions, the Alliance and the Horde, this movie neglects them all in favour of focusing squarely on the battle between humans and Orcs. It’s the correct choice; as Warcraft continually struggles with explaining lore to newcomers, I can only imagine how much worse this fatal flaw would have been had dwarfs, elves and the like been focused on as well. Warcraft spends its last ten minutes heavily setting up a sequel, which aside from being a tad presumptuous is likely to please fans of the video games, as the door has been opened to expand the scope considerably.
While Warcraft utterly fails in the plot and characters department, it truly shines from a visual perspective. The third act especially is excellent because it finally drops the incoherent fantasy clichés and embraces action and spectacle over everything else. The effects really are quite impressive: the Orcs (Garona aside) are wholly CGI, visually dynamic, and showcase some incredible character design. It’s a shame that the first two-thirds of Warcraft get so bogged down in telling a frankly uninspired storyline, because when the film places its sole focus on wowing the audience with a large-scale battle between humans and Orcs the film finally becomes enjoyable even if it remains unremarkable.
Warcraft has very little going in its favour. While the big action set pieces in the final third are enjoyable, they cannot justify the hefty asking price of over an hour of convoluted plot points and characters so one-dimensional you’ll think they were written for children. Warcraft has been released with the subtitle The Beginning in several foreign markets, which is rather ironic; based on this feature I doubt there’ll be many audience members wanting to see the story continue.