Foreword: I’ve played every Warcraft RTS – upon release, mind this, in ’94, ’95 and ’02 – and I was even looking forward to the cancelled point-and-click adventure they once worked on, but never cared much for World of Warcraft. With that out of the way:
Is this what an Early Access movie looks like?
So far, Blizzard has had an annoyingly great work ethos. Their success in the 90s and the money printing machine that is World of Warcraft (still counting more than five million monthly paying subscribers) have put them into a royal position. While other game studios always race to meet dates, Blizzard usually has all the time in the world to forge an ideal release. If you’re waiting for a sequel, it really tests your patience, but typically, the wait is always worth it.
Which makes it such a head-scratcher that their first official movie release feels so unfinished.
It wasn’t even for a rushed production. Originally announced in 2006 and finally shot in 2014 by Duncan Jones (who did the great Moon and the solid Source Code), they clearly had more than enough time to craft their ideal vision of what a Warcraft movie should be, but it doesn’t show. Now, it’s not a bad movie, luckily no Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, but the result is just okayish, thus overly underwhelming for what could have been. The decade-old Silent Hill still reigns as the best video game adaptation to date, and it honestly shouldn’t.
Here’s the plot: Orcs have managed to deplete all of their resources on their homeworld. A warlock opens a gate to the world of the humans, and a first wave of orcs enters to collect lifeforms whose souls are needed to re-open the gate. Durotan, one of the early invaders, sees that the warlock will make this new world as uninhabitable as their previous one. Hoping for change, he contacts the humans.
Let’s talk about what works: the orcs. Every single one of them has an amazing design, with exciting scars, weapons, and bone trophies. Orc chief Durotan (Toby Kebbell, Dr Doom from the latest Fantastic Four) might constantly sport teary puppy eyes, but each time that huge orc-man gets to fight, it’s an impressive sight. The Warcraft orcs are way faster and stronger than Peter Jackson’s Uruk-hai, and smash stuff so fabulously Hulk would be proud. You can sense the power and ferocity these guys bring to battle. There are a bunch of specific orc-on-orc duels of honor that are really the highlight of the movie. Believe me, once the seemingly frail orc warlock (not a spoiler) drops his robe and is as ripped as the Abomination, you’ll grin like an idiot. From a technical point of view, the orcs are mostly well done. The first time we get to see Durotan in a close-up, you’ll be astonished how convincing he looks.
On the human side, Travis Fimmel (Surfer, Dude) makes for an acceptably passable hero. His Lothar quickly understands that Durotan might be of help, and that the kingdom of his boss is truly in danger to be overthrown. He has a badass gryphon as a ride, a four-legged eagle which even gets to have his own fight sequence. Did I mention that Clancy Brown voices one of the orcs? Yeah, he’s as classy as always. Paula Patton (Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire) doesn’t do a bad job either, but I’ll get to her in a minute.
Wait. No, I’ll get to her right now, as there’s nothing else that truly works. Sigh. In concept, Patton’s character is the most interesting one. As a half-orc / half-human, she carries both sides of the war inside of her and is obviously torn about it. Not being a pure blood, and “just” a woman on top of that, the capable warrior is barely recognized by her own Horde, and when Durotan teams up with her and some of the humans (not a spoiler), she eventually questions her genetic loyality. Sadly, the movie screws up what could have been an emotional arc by forgetting about her, instead wasting time on other characters that are either terribly cast, terribly written or otherwise just don’t work.
We quickly get that Durotan cares for his family, but the movie just can’t stop shoving it in our faces. Too many scenes of him being afraid of the future, of his baby (DAMMIT, LOOK HOW CUTE IT IS!), and his desperate wife. Sure, it was a hard sell to make us care for butt-ugly brutish orcs, but Duncan Jones oversells it in an attempt to reach Avatar’s reach, reducing Durotan to a one-note character. The fact that this guy whose species is bound to a codex of honor is forced to betray his own species in order to save it, never hits home. The weight of that decision just isn’t there. The main antagonist, orc wizard Gul’dan (Daniel Wu of Love Undercover 2: Love Mission) might be simple as well, but as every scene has him either fight or being a major dick to his whole species, he gets a pass. Sadly he’s the only one daring to go for camp.
Meanwhile, every human except Fimmel is stunningly miscast. Dominic Cooper (Need for Speed: The Movie) plays a bland king, Ruth Negga (Agents of SHIELD) acts as Lothar’s bland wife, Ben Schnetzer (Goat) is a bland junior wizard, and the usually reliable Ben Foster (that Lance Armstrong movie) outfails all of them as the (bland) lead wizard Medivh. There is no chemistry in any of their meetings, no matter the constellation, tragic deaths don’t matter, and Cooper seems as uncomfortable playing a king as Foster visibly has to hold it together not to break into laughter. Medivh is easily one of the worst blockbuster characters in a long time, mostly fake-brooding in an incredibly cheap looking set, churning out empty phrases and never coming off as fascinatingly mysterious. We all know these guys are talented, but for this project this cast simply doesn’t work. We’re looking at Eragon quality acting, with moments of Attack of the Clones like resonance, and it certainly doesn’t help that the script is ashamed of the campiness of its source material. It’s mostly devoid of humor, trying hard to be taken seriously.
There’s one strange moment in which Patton – while showing off ample cleavage – speaks out that the nerdy junior wizard wants to mate with her. For a second you’ll expect Patton to look directly into the camera and wink. At the nerds in the audience. You know, because nerds want to bang green women with over-sized
The core elements of the story do work, in theory, and there are some twists you probably won’t see coming, but it never really has any effect. You can’t feel a thing. The moment the orcs begin the war, there’s barely any desperation on the human side. The first wave of orcs are already eradicating all of mankind, and soon there’ll be even more of them, but the king and his helpers never sell that threat. Characters then switch sides, sometimes even multiple times so. They do it because they believe others are wrong, or because they’re using evil magic, or because they are possessed by demons using said evil magic. It is confusing and not always clear to see what’s the real ambition. Any time a character stands up and says “Ha! Surprise, I’m one of them” it simply goes nowhere.
During the first hour, the characters endlessly name-drop known characters and places from the games, and you’re nearly PTSD-ing from remembering John Carter and Jupiter Ascending. I saw Warcraft with a friend who knows the whole franchise lore, and he really did enjoy the amount of fan-service shown, but if you’re not a fan, it’s not exactly an easy introduction. The Lord of the Rings trilogy did the same, but did it way slower, carefully establishing the world and its inhabitants. The human weapons and shields are shiny, over-sized, and painted in bright colors. This would make for a fun con cosplay, but it doesn’t work in the overly serious story Jones is trying to tell. What personally disappointed me: you get barely any of the atmospheric panorama images you’ve seen in Blizzard cinematics, artworks, and loading screens. Whether it’s Draenor, world of the orcs, or Azeroth, world of the humans – aside from mere seconds-long establishing shots, no side has anything to offer in terms of interesting looking architecture or nature. This is simply not an exciting world to explore, at least not on the big screen.
If you wanna nitpick some more, you might wanna criticize both the bland score and the lousy animations. While the computer generated orcs look amazing during dialogue, their motions are kinda off. Anytime they begin to run and collide with other beings, the physics of their movements and impacts break immersion. Add human faces, and it gets even worse. Suddenly, the effects work no longer stands up with the best, but reminds you of early 2000’s action scenes.
I seriously don’t get why they didn’t invest more time and money to fix this. At least this. They may have had different opinions on story and characters, but everyone on board should have realized that this is a problem. A fixable problem. Yeah, maybe Warcraft wouldn’t be a true box office winner once the budget rose too high, but they know that this movie is the Iron Man of what’s supposed to be a giant Blizzard movie-verse. Several Warcraft, Starcraft and Diablo movies are in early stages of planning. If this first thing fails, there might not be a Blizzard movie-verse. This first impression had to leave a mark, but I’m afraid it won’t be a good one. The Hobbit trilogy suddenly doesn’t look that bad anymore, does it? In all seriousness: there never is a scene as strong as the Bilbo-Gollum encounter in the first, and none as fun as the barrel escape or the chase through the goblin city. Sure, all three of the Hobbits may have bloat, but the phenomenal music alone sweeps the ground with the generic paddling Warcraft offers. At best, Warcraft is as good as the Tauriel romance subplot and the okayish first fight between Gandalf and Sauron.
I won’t spoil the end of the movie, but it ends as clunky as it begins. In contrast to other first chapter movies it simply doesn’t feel like the end of an first act. It just suddenly stops, with the war literarily just pausing. Even if you’re into the IP and can look beyond all of this movie’s mistakes, it is really, really hard to get excited for more. I even gotta say: I care much for Diablo and Starcraft, but if this is the quality of movie-making we’re to expect from those adaptations, no thanks.
Tl;dr? Duncan Jones’ Warcraft movie is watchable, but highly underwhelming.