My understanding is that Duncan Jones’ Warcraft is based not directly on Blizzard’s massive online role playing game World of Warcraft, but on the lore from that world that precedes the playable action. The fact that it’s a prelude makes a great deal of sense, as this may be the most blatant attempt by Legendary and Universal to launch a franchise that I’ve ever encountered. I’m all for an epic, ambitious, weird new fantasy saga, but from what we get here, not this one.
If you’re steeped in knowledge of this realm, perhaps Warcraft presents a coherent story, but for the rest of us, we may be shit out of luck. (Though one avid player I talked to indicated that’s not necessarily the case.) The film throws things at the viewer as if each minute facet of this sprawling, fantastic world is common knowledge. I’m all for not over-explaining every element, for letting context provide a framework. That does, admittedly, happen on occasion, though not often, and frequently we’re left to dangle in the wind, wondering what the hell just happened, besieged by a wave of cryptic fantasy names and terms.
This is an immersive approach, a kind of sink or swim strategy, but unfortunately we’re not even taught how to dog paddle. Then the overly busy script from Jones and Charles Leavitt undercuts the attempt to drop the viewer into the midst of this realm. It’s primarily made up of exposition-heavy dialogue where the characters explain their own histories and how they’re connected to one another, along with huge dumps of information that weigh down the pace. But even as so many things are hammered home and expounded on in great depth, there are others tossed out as if we know. It’s two narrative methods completely at odds with one another.
Warcraft tells the story of the first encounter between orcs and humans. Draenor, the home world of the orcs, is dying, consumed by a dark magic called the Fel, which demands life as its cost. The evil shaman Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) leads a group of warriors, including Durotan (Toby Kebbell) and his pregnant wife, Draka (Anna Galvin), through a portal to Azeroth. Though this realm is populated by kings and warriors, it has lived in peace for years, which changes right quick when the Horde shows up on the scene. There is infighting and betrayal, shifting alliances and shadowy allegiances on both sides, and factions on either end want peace while others push for annihilation.
Absent is the rich, layered characterization of Jones’ earlier movies Moon and Source Code. There’s little nuance or subtlety to be found. After witnessing the death of a loved one, a character says things like, “I’ve never felt such pain,” just in case you couldn’t tell. Humans can be monstrous, and the monsters may be more human than they look. Characters that shouldn’t be trusted damn near tent their fingers and cackle they’re so obvious.
Durotan is really the only character with any depth or texture, which isn’t saying much. He’s a father, a husband, and an honorable chieftain, and he sees the Fel for what it is, a source of death and destruction. Recognizing the reality of the situation, he’s torn between duty to his leader, tradition, and defending his own clan.
Along with Andy Serkis, Toby Kebbell is one of the greatest motion capture actors working, and that shows. Visually, Warcraft owes a huge debt to Lord of the Rings—the cities, the battles, and especially the dwarves feel like they’ve been lifted from footage stolen out of Peter Jackson’s garage. But the orcs represent a huge step in special effects. The technology used captures deft, miniscule facial movements, their eyes are fully alive, and though they may be massive, hulking creatures, there’s never any question if they’re real or not.
The same cannot be said in other instances, however, and the quality fluctuates wildly throughout. While the orcs look incredible, other creatures do not, and many scenes are horrific green screen nightmares, to the degree where it’s hard to believe they’re from the same movie (or that this is ILM’s handiwork, unless you account for the Star Wars prequels). It doesn’t help matters that the IMAX 3D transfer is atrocious, and if you do see Warcraft, take great pains to avoid this migraine-inducing fiasco that turns the action into a muddy smudge blasted across the screen.
This is further exacerbated in every scene with human actors. Maybe it’s just that there’s not as much to be dazzled by, but the non-CGI performers are, across the board, not good. Vikings star Travis Fimmel’s hero Anduin Lothar always appears on the verge of roid rage tears, like Matthew McConaughey in Reign of Fire, but that’s all he does; never has a king been less regal than Cooper’s Llane Wyrnn; the young mage, Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), is a goofy, out-of-his-depth nerd that would be more at home in a high school comedy; and Paula Patton’s half-orc Garona is god-awful. Though the other orcs are magnificently rendered, she’s painted green, thrown in a skimpy outfit, and given a comical dental prosthetic. It’s almost hilarious how little effort went into her character design.
Ben Foster as Medivh, the Guardian, the most powerful magical presence on Azeroth, is the only human performer doing anything remotely noteworthy. He basically plays the wise, all-knowing wizard, but at 35-years-old, he’s horribly miscast—they also try to make him hunky early on as he walks around bare-chested. Still, unlike anyone else, he embraces the inherent strangeness and the off-kilter nature of this world, and not only appears to be having a great deal of fun chewing the CGI scenery, but is far more interesting to watch than any of his counterparts. To the point where it feels like he’s in a different movie than everyone else, like maybe he’s privy to something none of the rest of us are.
Warcraft is full of orcs and warriors, mages and shaman, and magic and wonder and action and bizarre shit at every turn. This could have been spectacular, like a crazy Dungeons & Dragons fever dream come to life. It’s weird and ambitious and I can appreciate the deep dive into fantasy, but though there are stunning technical achievements, it crumbles under the unbearable weigh of its flaws and just sucks out any possible joy. [Grade: C-/D+]