Gryphons. Dark magic. Orcs swinging colossal hammers that make Thor’s Mjolnir look like one of those little things your grandmother uses to smash up toffee. Based on the Blizzard videogames of the same name, Warcraft marks a considerable change of pace for Duncan Jones, who previously brought us the deliciously poignant Moon and the taut sci-fi thriller, Source Code.
If there’s a connecting thread between Warcraft and Jones’ earlier movies, it’s in its effervescent tone and clear affection for genre movies of the 60s, 70s and 80s. Where Moon lovingly referenced Silent Running or Outland, Warcraft appears to take its cue not from the blood-and-thunder fantasy of the trendy Game Of Thrones, but old-school fare like Beastmaster, Legend and the movies of Ray Harryhausen.
Set in the quasi-medieval landscape of Azeroth, Warcraft concerns an unfolding conflict between orcs and humans. The trouble begins when a band of orcs, led by a powerful, hooded warlock named Gul’dan (Daniel Wu), use a magic portal to flee their dying world and enter Azeroth. Gul’dan requires mortal souls to power his dark magic, called the Fell, which acts as fuel for the portal between the two realms, and dozens of humans are being captured so the way can be opened for an entire swarm of orcs to invade the land.
Over in the Kingdom of Stormwind, King Llane (an ermine-clad Dominic Cooper) learns that his garrisons are falling one by one to a new enemy, and dispatches Commander Lothar (Travis Fimmel), a young magician, Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) and a powerful Guardian, Medivh (Ben Foster) to investigate. On the orcs’ side, the mighty chieftain Durotan (a motion-captured, unrecognisable Toby Kebbel) begins to suspect that Gul’dan’s magic may have been to blame for destroying their homeworld in the first place, while half orc, half human Garona (Paula Patton, delivering her lines through tiny plastic tusks) defects to the side of the humans.
In creating a conflict where there are heroes and possible villains on both sides, Jones, who co-writes with Charles Leavitt, give himself an awful lot of introductions to make, and Warcraft’s opening minutes are the film’s shakiest. But once the great chunks of back story and world-building are in place, Warcraft begins to find its stride. Twinkle-eyed novice magician Khadgar has the most entertaining plot thread, where he tries to figure out exactly how the orcs have managed to tear open a door into Azeroth; Ben Foster is enjoyably hammy as a powerful mage, while Travis Fimmel gives a strangely woozy, Captain Jack Sparrow-like performance as the bearded warrior, Lothar.
The even-handed depiction of a war between two vastly different societies recalls Matt Reeves’ outstanding Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, though the quality of the CGI and motion capture isn’t quite as consistently believable as it was in that film. Durotan the noble chieftain – this film’s Caesar analogue, you could say – is rendered with real weight, yet his heavily pregnant wife, Draka (Anna Galvin) looks somewhat stiff in her expressions and movements. An opening shot of a human and orc battling in a desert setting has a photo-real quality, approaching something from a spaghetti western; conversely, one or two aerial shots of castles and cities look closer to cut-scenes from a videogame.
Warcraft marks Jones’ first outing as a director of effects-heavy battle scenes, and it’s arguable that the set-pieces improve as the film goes on. Viewed in 3D, early fight sequences judder by in an ugly blur, yet later ones are better orchestrated and shot with a steadier hand. With blasts of magic picked out in dazzling flashes of blue and acid green, Jones captures the vibrancy of the Blizzard games. The acting and dialogue is best described as functional, but the characters are endearing, and it’s refreshing to see a summer movie where it’s seldom too obvious who will survive to the end credits. Warcraft doesn’t aim for the obsessive vastness of Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy, but the overwhelming sense that Jones is enjoying the chance to play around in a world of magic and monsters means his splashy film succeeds on its own broadly entertaining terms.
Whether Warcraft can break the stigma attached to videogame-to-movie adaptations remains to be seen. Will the games’ legion fans appreciate the light, pulpy approach to Warcraft? Will a broader audience embrace its quirky charm? For this writer, at least, Warcraft feels like a throwback to the kinds of films that used to appear on Sunday afternoon television about 20 or so years ago, which is by no means a bad thing.
Colourful where so many other summer films are drab and goofy where the majority of expensive effects movies are deadly earnest, Warcraft is a lightweight yet disarmingly entertaining fantasy.
Warcraft: The Beginning is out in UK cinemas on the 30th May.