Warcraft: The Beginning
Viewed purely from the perspective of a computer game adaptation, Warcraft can be deemed as successful. For players, it expands the reach of the realm of Azeroth, adding another layer to the game's mythos. However, as a motion picture designed for a general audience (the majority of who may not be gamers), Warcraft is a failure. With its spastic, borderline-incoherent narrative, amateurish acting, and lack of effective world building, Warcraft feels like a Lord of the Rings wannabe that comes close to matching Peter Jackson's seminal trilogy only in terms of visual impact. Yes, there are times when Warcraft is awe-inspiring. It features some great images (although there are instances when the CGI becomes overwhelming) which makes it all the more disappointing how completely the screenplay lets down the work of the effects designers. Warcraft provides the shell of a great fantasy adventure saga but never effectively goes beyond that. This is much more like the bad fantasy of the 1980s and 1990s than the better brand we have recently become accustomed to.
The movie, brought to the screen by Duncan Jones (whose Moon was one of the best recent low-budget sci-fi films), tells of the beginning of an orc-human war. The human kingdoms are led by King Llane Wrynn (Dominic Cooper); his faithful warrior friend, Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel, looking disconcertingly like Paul Rudd in need of a shave); and the Guardian mage Medivh (Ben Foster). The invading marauders, fleeing a dying world, follow the evil wizard Gul'Dan (a motion-captured Daniel Wu). One of the fiercest orc chieftains, Durotan (a motion-captured Toby Kebbell), is dubious of Gul'Dan's intentions and methods and his opposition results in strife within the ranks. Meanwhile, the humans have to contend with a betrayal of their own and an armed force unable to match the orcs for numbers or ferocity.
Given a considerably larger canvas, it's possible that the basic storyline of Warcraft could have been woven into a compelling fantasy adventure. The potential at least is there. Crammed into two hours, however, we get tropes and little else. Character development is as perfunctory as narrative thrust, rushing ahead at breakneck pace without ever pausing to allow the situations to breathe. World building in particular suffers as a result. Azeroth feels more like a stage for battle and bloodshed rather than a "lived in" realm. The movie assumes viewers have played the game and isn't especially interested in luring "outsiders" in.
There are a few effective portrayals. Ben Foster's Medivh has the right amount of gravitas and mystery. Toby Kebbell's Durotan, although as much a product of motion capture imagery as performance, is perhaps the best realized character in the movie. Dominic Cooper is disappointing. The normally reliable actor seems out of his element, although that's nothing compared to Travis Fimmel and Paula Patton. Patton, whose skin is colored green, exudes a sense that she's plotting fiendish things to do to her agent. Fimmel, meanwhile, plays Lothar like he's in a parody. His approach would be pitch-perfect for The Princess Bride but is fatally misguided for Warcraft. It's impossible to take him seriously.
Warcraft offers an experience of sorts for those who have spent long hours playing the game. This is an opportunity to encounter familiar places, creatures, and characters in new surroundings. But the film's clunky screenplay mires it in the muck with such unmemorable titles as Conan the Destroyer and Dungeons and Dragons (okay, it's not as bad as either of these, but that's damning with faint praise). While it's true that not every fantasy property needs to have the grandeur of scope and complexity of plot of The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, it needs more than what Warcraft provides. Large scale battles and magical pyrotechnics are nice supplements but the absence of well-formed characters and a meaningful narrative render such pretty things moot. As a commercial for the game, however, Warcraft works and maybe that's the yardstick of success against which this film should be measured.
© 2016 James Berardinelli