I freaking give up. I give up ever getting a great video game movie.
Once more into the breach to get the first great video game adaptation. Warcraft has done well in China, but now is for the good U, S of A’s turn to see the latest blockbuster. And hey, this adaptation has been done with the blessing of the original creators behind the games, Blizzard Entertainment, and it’s directed by the son of David Bowie, Duncan Jones (who also directed the excellent Source Code and Moon). So how does Warcraft fair? Well…it’s not awful…but don’t for a minute call this good.
The plot is needlessly complex, but it really shouldn’t have been. You’ve got a race of monstrous giants called Orcs, who have left their decaying world through their sorcerer leader, Gul’dan, utilizing a dark magic that turns living into fuel for transporting an army into the land of Azeroth. The humans of Azeroth realize the threat these Orcs from another world pose, thus begin a campaign to rid their world of these creatures collectively known as “The Horde.” Not all of the Orcs are with Gul’dan however, as a chieftain among them named Durotan recognizes the dark magic has too great of a cost on their freedom and begins a plot with the humans to bring an end to Gul’dan’s tyranny.
There, I have done a better job of explaining the point of this movie than the film did itself in its two hour run time. Mostly because this film feels like someone making The Lord of the Rings if they only read The Silmarillion. No wait, scratch that, it feels like the first five minutes of The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring stretched out two hours. We’re basically given the setup for a really awesome movie instead of the really awesome movie. I’m aware that the original developers of the Warcraft games had a stranglehold on all creative decisions with this movie (hence why several directors like Sam Raimi left and why it’s been in development hell for 10 freaking years), and in their misguided attempt to “get their adaptation right” they basically failed filmmaking 101: tell the most interesting part of your story.
Rather than get to the most interesting part of the Warcraft lore, you’re treated to a two hour prequel that heavily relies on biggest narrative reliance for crap fantasy writers of all…exposition. Every. Single. Scene. Is. Exposition. Bar none, you have characters explaining the mechanics, geography, politics, and tools of their world every five seconds until the last twenty minutes when Jones remembers he’s making a summer movie with wizards, monsters and shit. And while the climax is a spectacular fare that rivals that of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, it’s just not worth getting to this balls out ending; because I only gave a shit about two characters in the entire ensemble, and one of them is out of commission for a large part of this climax.
The characters I really connected with were, ironically, the less human looking Orcs. Aside from having fully fleshed out personalities with digestible and understandable backstories, they look goddamn amazing. The Na’vi in Avatar may have wowed people with how they looked, but these Orcs look so damn lifelike and unique that it blew those blue cat people away. And unlike the Na’vi, there were multiple Orcs that you wanted to follow.
We primarily follow Duratan, the aforementioned Chieftain who’s not keen on the magic that literally sucks the life out of people in a cartoonishly evil way. Slight ticks with his eyes and facial expressions were especially communicative when he delivered his plain, matter-of-fact lines that made him a hero you wanted to root for. You also have Garona, a halfbreed Orc that is also a personal slave to Gul’dan, who ends up being captured by the humans and explains what they’re doing on Azeroth. But she explains Orc culture in very careful interactions with other humans that help flesh out the world and her own personality at the same time, just like a great fantasy story should. Really, if the movie was 90% about following these Orc rebelling in the middle of Horde’s conquest of Azeroth, I would have been digging the shit out of it. Alas, they have to share their movie with the squishy humans.
And by God does all the magic and wonder of the world of Azeroth gets blasted to smithereens when these assholes are on screen. Hardly any of them manages to be likable or even interesting. Only Dominic Cooper as the King gets out alive for me, because they show him to give a shit about the common folk compared to every other damn character in this movie who is either annoying, lacking in personality, or thoroughly detestable (and sometimes all three).
The big disappointment is Travis Fimmel as the de facto protagonist. Friends of mine love this dude because of his role on Vikings, but I sincerely hope he puts more effort into that show because he’s goddamn terrible here. The movie tries to give him pathos and a tragic backstory as well as suffering a debilitating loss…but they also try to make him a swashbuckling rogue who doesn’t play by the rules. The two sides just don’t mix, it’s like trying to make a character out of Aragorn and Han Solo; they’re polar opposites and they hardly have anything in common (besides universes obviously). Not to mention a romantic subplot comes out of fucking nowhere between him and the half-Orc Garona. Now I’m totally not against inter-fantasy-species fucking (hell, I wish more films had it), but believe me when I see this “romance” is completely underdeveloped and serves little to no purpose at all except maybe sequel-bating, which I’ll get to later.
I got to first smack around Ben Schnetzer as a disgraced mage who gets roped into the conflict, and I got to smack Duncan Jones a bit for making him and Travis have a buddy cop duet occur that never pans out or is even satisfying in the least. Ben Foster is around to be
Gandalf, I mean an all power wizard who’s the guardian of this world but is also struggling with some dark forces on his own. Consequently, there’s a big “twist” involving him that if you didn’t see coming…you were clearly asleep (couldn’t blame you).
And it’s all because the dialogue for these humans are noticeably worse than dialogue for the Orcs. The Orcs have a simple, tribal way of talking that establishes their culture and allows you to follow them easily. The humans are channeling British, American, Scottish, and any other random English dialect to create the culture of their world so there’s this weird disconnect where you get lost in whatever the fuck they’re talking about.
Thankfully, the dialogue is not the focal point of this film, but the action can do the job pretty well in the entertainment department. Like I said, there’s some pretty cool fight sequences between the Orcs and humans, that make this thing worthwhile. Hell, the fights are something you will never get out of the games, both because of their limitation and their inability to frame an action shot. This where Jones truly shines as a director, which is what makes all the narrative fuck ups so much more jarring.
But like I started out with, I strongly believe Jones was locked in with the story he got and couldn’t do much to change it, otherwise he had to leave the project like all the others. Except he should have realized that he was basically being asked to make a big expensive prequel to a great movie he may get a chance to direct if the box office returns deemed them so (right now, they’re relying on the international market which could actually pull through). And being a hardcore gamer with a deep love of the medium (seriously check out his Twitter feed, it’s chock full of geek shit), Duncan Jones must have been hellbent on giving audiences the first great video game movie.
Which is why it’s so tragic that he just didn’t make the mark. He was aiming for Lord of the Rings, but wound up somewhere between Excalibur and Krull. Not horrible, but not particularly great either. When the film embraces all the fantasy absurdity like it does in the trailers, the movie comes alive. But the connecting tissue doesn’t stick most of the time, and it brings down the parts that did work.
I dug parts of it, but I really can’t recommend people to check this out in theaters. Maybe if you’re really into bright fantasy or the games themselves, you won’t be disappointed by paying thirteen bucks. Personally, I really think this deserves an enthusiastic…