Warcraft comes to the screen loaded with baggage: not just the weight of a 22-year-old video game empire (and the vast canon associated with it), but the long, bloody trail of failed attempts to bring such games to mainstream movie audiences. On paper, the hiring of Duncan Jones as director seemed to be the missing ingredient lacking from all those previous disappointments; not only an avid gamer with a deep passion for this particular series, Jones also showed a flair for bringing character and intelligence to his previous films, Moon and Source Code.
But Warcraft is a much bigger and less unique proposition than either of those, with the games themselves a mash-up of decades of fantasy tropes. Consequently, any personality that Jones might have infused in this massive ($160 million) big screen adaptation gets hopelessly lost in translation. Warcraft is not the worst example of its genre, but it is a tedious and forgettable one: it reeks of corporate branding, its story and characters are intermittently entertaining but largely flat, and its visuals run the gamut from impressive to cheap-looking. In other words, it’s a wash, a generic would-be blockbuster that already seems dated the minute you leave your seat.
The plot, adapted from the first game Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, finds hordes of the former creatures – monstrous, shaggy, with arms the size of tree trunks and tusks protruding from their lower jaws – preparing to leave their dying world of Draenor and pass through a portal to the much more idyllic planet Azeroth, which the orcs intend to colonize under the leadership of the evil sorcerer Gul’dan (Daniel Wu). The orcs themselves are divided into several tribes, not all friendly to each other, and the leader of the Frostwolf Clan, Durotan (Toby Kebbell), has his doubts about the invasion but joins Gul’dan’s advance party nonetheless.
Once on Azeroth, however, the orcs must contend with the humans, elves, and dwarves who live there, led by the courageous knight Lothar (Travis Fimmel), King Llane (Dominic Cooper), his wife Lady Taria (Ruth Negga), and the mysterious Medivh (Ben Foster), a mage sworn to protect Azeroth at all costs. War breaks out pretty quickly, as the humans attempt to hold off the orcs long enough to close the portal before the rest of them come through. Add some sinister magic into the mix known as the Fel, a half-orc/half-human woman with shifting allegiances named Garona (Paula Patton), and the usual web of betrayals, battles, spells and powers, and you have the makings of a fantasy story pretty much like every one you’ve seen before, if somewhat less comprehensible.
The tale is not helped much by the cast or characters, although remarkably the better effort comes from the orc side. Toby Kebbell’s Durotan is the most complex character in the picture, a creature with real feelings and empathy who is perhaps the conscience of the entire piece. While unrecognizable in his thick CG skin, Kebbell does give a genuine performance underneath all the ones and zeroes, and the much-heralded facial capture work on Durotan yields some dazzling shots. Paula Patton also generates some compelling moments as Garona, but while I could buy her green skin, her tusks prove too much of an unwelcome distraction, not to mention they get in the way of her saying her damn lines.
The human team, however, does not hold up its end at all. Travis Fimmel is a void as Lothar, a walking action figure with no inner life, and a half-hearted attempt at a subplot involving his son can’t save him. I tend to like Dominic Cooper, but his bland king here doesn’t do him any favors, a fate that also befalls his poor Preacher castmate Ruth Negga. Junior wizard Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) seems imported from another, perhaps funnier movie, while Ben Foster brings his usual glowering intensity to Medivh – only to have to sustain that for two hours with no variation.
We might give the inch-deep characters and leftover Middle-earth settings a pass if the story gripped us from start to finish, but Warcraft proceeds at an enervated pace, with the script throwing just about every well-worn fantasy device it can into the stew and stirring lazily. The battle scenes are more formulaic than fantastic, and while the orcs have some weight and bulk in smaller numbers, the larger scenes turn their numbers into a soup of CG. There’s a real absence of wonder, humor or excitement – it’s like everyone involved knows the paces they’re being put through and gets by at a level of competent mediocrity until they can go home.
That’s ultimately what Warcraft is: a competent mediocrity, with more thrills and heart coming from the efforts of the Industrial Light & Magic technicians to make Durotan’s eyes light up than any twist of plot or revelation of character. Perhaps the most annoying aspect of the film is the sense of entitlement it develops when it becomes apparent that this gigantic yet small-minded movie is actually all just a throat-clearing: the movie doesn’t end so much as just stop, with the clear implication that we will all be returning for a sequel.
That almost made me hate the picture outright; it’s one thing to imply that another movie is coming when you’re two or three or 13 films into a series, but to not even give viewers a relatively complete experience the first time around – and expecting them to resign themselves to coming back – is both insulting and arrogant. If you’re going to make a movie, make one with a beginning, a middle, and an end, even if they’re just like many others that have come before.
But game publisher Blizzard Entertainment, Universal Pictures, and, it seems, Duncan Jones don’t care about that. All anyone seems concerned with regarding this listless, hollow film is brand extension. Warcraft once again proves that video games, with their wholly artificial environments and never-ending, repetitive narratives, don’t translate to cinematic storytelling very well. And it’s ironic that a true feeling of craftsmanship – that some sort of higher aspiration was poured into this — is the biggest thing absent from a movie called Warcraft.
Warcraft is in theaters on Friday, June 10.