One of the big challenges of adapting videogames into movies is the need to act quickly before popularity fades. While ‘World of Warcraft’ still has plenty of brand name recognition, it’s far from the pop culture behemoth it was when the movie adaptation project first entered development. It’s hard to say if audiences will flock to this fantasy epic in the numbers that Universal Studios is banking on.
That’s a shame, since the movie itself isn’t exactly strong enough to pull in viewers who aren’t already sold on the franchise. Even though it has some pretty visuals, for the most part this lurching would-be blockbuster is far too dull to deliver the summertime goods it promises. Ah well, it’s not as if it taints the pool of cinematic videogame adaptations either. If anything, by merely being a disappointment rather than a disaster, it’s one of the finer entries in that troublesome genre.
‘Warcraft’ has plenty of characters and story beats, enough to suggest epic grandeur and worlds the producers desperately hope will be mined further in sequels. Unfortunately, little of it makes much sense or registers. Essentially, we have a war between two races.
The hulking green orcs are desperately searching for new lands to call their own. They look like big generic monsters, but the film attempts to pull our sympathies across both sides of the battlefield. The gentle(ish) orc warrior/chief/new father (Toby Kebbell) worries that his tribe is being pushed too far by a shaman devoted to black magic. (Seems like a reasonable assessment of the situation.) Over in human land, a collection of nearly indistinguishable bearded bros compete for screen time, including a noble king (Dominic Cooper), a screaming commander (Travis Fimmel), a nerdy mage in training (Ben Schnetzer) and a wizard who creates CGI magic (Ben Foster, oddly). Caught in the middle is Paula Patton sporting a ridiculous fanged underbite as a half-human/half-orc and… blah blah blah, everyone fights eventually and the morality of said battle is somewhat murky.
The biggest problem here is that while the ‘Warcraft’ games enslaved millions with their addictive world-building, it was the in-game experience that made them so appealing, not the story. The mythology was always a hodgepodge of Tolkien, ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ and every other fantasy epic to come down the pike before its creation. There’s nothing distinct enough here to be worth following as a story, because the story was little more than connective tissue for addictive gameplay. Now that those pleasures have been removed for the movie, it’s like sitting through a tedious two-hour opening cinematic for a game that no one will ever get to play.
There is a battle, of course, but not until the end. Very few action scenes arise before then because the film’s budget was stretched across long drawn-out scenes of orcs debating each other instead. Although the motion capture CGI majesty of the orcs is remarkable, watching a big green guy debate whether or not he believes in his cause after the birth of his son isn’t exactly ideal popcorn munching summer entertainment, even if it costs millions and took a vast number of talented digital artists to achieve.
The tedious tale isn’t helped by the human performers, who look dumbfounded by their dialogue and struggle to perform against green-screens. Ben Foster fares best, since he’s a genuinely gifted actor. However, his performance style is so natural and contemporary it never quite fits with the histrionic fantasy nonsense around him. The best performance belongs to Kebbell’s orc, but sadly that effort feels mostly wasted in this turgid epic.
It’s sad to think the film is the first truly big-budget effort from director Ducan Jones, the talented sci-fi visionary behind ‘Moon’ and ‘Source Code’. It should have been exciting to watch him play with a blockbuster playset, but he was clearly crushed by franchise filmmaking necessities. Within the limitations of the rather clichéd ‘Warcraft’ aesthetic, he creates some interesting visuals (particularly within the orc and magic sequences) and has fun with some overhead battle views recreating the game’s visual language. He also attempts to touch on issues related to refugee struggles, family dynamics, gender politics, and the challenging morality of war.
Thanks to Jones’ efforts, ‘Warcraft’ is at least more dramatically ambitious than this smashy-smashy epic could have been in the hands of a Michael Bay disciple, but it never quite overcomes the limitations of the source material. The movie is also far less spectacular and entertaining (until the grand finale, anyway) than it would have been with a dumbbell in charge. It may not be a disaster, but that’s not the same as saying it’s a good movie. It’s a troubled epic and a dull blockbuster, neither as resonant and meaningful as Jones wants it to be nor as explosively exciting as the summer movie marketplace demands.
In other words, it’s a bit of a mess, but at least an interesting one. As far as big-budget failures go, that’s about as much as you can hope for. With luck, the movie will gross just enough at the box office that Jones will get a chance to make another studio picture with more control, but not enough that Universal will feel the need to expand ‘Warcraft’ into a franchise.