It’s here! It’s here! The movie that is supposed to finally legitimize video game film adaptations is here! So, does Warcraft fulfill all the movie-making dreams of video gamers everywhere?
The world of Azeroth is being invaded by an orc army known as the Horde. The orcs’ world is dying and they have fallen under the influence of Gul’dan (Daniel Wu), who promises them a better life in Azeroth. Gul’dan brings some of his best warriors through a portal to Azeroth using something called Fel Magic, which is fueled by the souls of the living. Gul’dan’s plan is to enslave the humans and then use their souls to power the portal and bring forth the entire Horde. Not all the orcs support Gul’dan’s plan including Durotan (Toby Kebbell), an orc chieftain. Durotan hopes to broker a peace with the humans as does a half-breed slave of Gul’dan’s, Garona (Paula Patton). The human king, Llane (Dominic Cooper), calls on his greatest warrior, Lothar (Travis Fimmel), to defend the kingdom. Lothar, who is also brother to the queen (Ruth Negga), is paired with a young mage, Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), who discovered the Fel Magic was at work. Khadgar calls on Llane to summon the Guardian (Ben Foster), a powerful mage that is tasked with defending the realm. Together, they will try to protect Azeroth as well as discover what is truly behind the Fel Magic. Will the humans and orcs make peace or charge headlong into war?
Unfortunately, the answer to that last question is given to you in the first five minutes of the film, but getting to that point is still an interesting, yet confusing story. There is a LOT of world-building that Co-Writer-Director Duncan Jones tries to load into this film and he’s only partially successful. Many of the opening scenes are incoherent to the uninitiated as names and places that might mean something to the legions of fans of the Warcraft PC game are thrown around with abandon. If the Lord of the Rings was about the journey, then Warcraft is about teleporting and flying to as many locations as possible in a short period of time. It was confusing as hell at times and it also doesn’t help that there’s no one clearly defined main character in this thing. Instead, we have our pick of four, but none of them can truly carry the film on their own. Plus, with the filmmakers jamming as much story into this thing as possible, we only get a few meaningful scenes between the main characters that lead to either highly dramatic scenes not resonating later or getting some unearned moments late in the game, because there’s not enough character building early on. If the script had been more focused or if the audience had a primary point of view character, we might have gotten a more satisfying film. Instead, the producers commit the cardinal sin of trying to start a new franchise: putting the cart before the horse. The filmmakers are in such a rush to get this Warcraft series going and making sequels, they forgot to make the first film as good as possible. The secret to a good franchise-starter is to have that first film be totally self-contained, but have enough dangling threads that could be explored later. Probably the two best examples of this are Star Wars and The Matrix. Instead of following those great films, Warcraft crammed enough story in it to make two films and subsequently, everything else suffers because of it. The story structure is all screwy and too compacted. Fantasy/sci-fi films need space to breathe so that the audience can get acclimated to the world, but Warcraft is too overstuffed to allow that to happen. I also expected a little more ambiguity between the humans and orcs, but it is set up very clearly that the orcs—aside from Durotan—are evil and the humans are good. That breakdown felt a little too easy to me.
However, this isn’t to say that Warcraft is all bad, it isn’t. There’s a lot to like in this film. The CGI effects are very good, but there are moments of dead-eyed performances that come hand-in-hand with a lot of green screen work. Overall, though, the effects are good. Jones also makes some nice nods to the classic video game with some aerial shots that recall the top-down viewpoint of the PC game. Jones and the cast also treat the material seriously without a hint of cheesiness to the entire affair, which is important in fantasy/sci-fi films. Also, while there does seem to be too much world-building going on for a single film, the detailed world that is created is impressive. It just would have been nice to have gotten to know more of what was going on in order to get more immersed in the world.
Most of the performances here are very good. The standouts are Patton and Kebbell, by far. Kebbell is an old hand at motion capture performance, as he appeared in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but he does a great job here. Patton is the only orc character who is not CGI, but she does a great job nonetheless. She and Kebbell provide a lot of the heart of the film. Fimmel is good as Lothar, but no offense to him, he’s no Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, who must immediately come to mind when seeing Fimmel in this film. Daniel Wu is also very good as Gul’dan. He’s quite a formidable villain. Ben Schnetzer is fine in his role, but I’ve never been a fan of actors in these types of fantasy films using American accents. They just don’t seem to fit. Foster is also all right as the Guardian, but I didn’t feel his character was developed well enough. He makes some moves and decisions that were not completely clear to me. I’m being vague, of course, but I’m trying to avoid spoilers.
Overall, while Warcraft has some elements that are very cool and I would definitely like to see another film in this world, it definitely has to be chalked up as a disappointment. The producers put too much emphasis on setting up a franchise and the film itself suffers as a result. The closest recent comparison I can think of is John Carter – another franchise starter that could have been great if they had just told a single story first instead of setting up the franchise. If you love fantasy worlds, check it out, but if you just have a casual interest, you’re better off catching it on Blu-Ray later this year.