Warcraft Exists in the Netherworld Between Good and Bad
And it rarely reaches either.
Movies based on video games have earned something of a bad rap over the years as Hollywood has proven itself unable to breach the disconnect between popular games and good movies. The adaptations range from the abysmal (Alone in the Dark) to the passably entertaining (Resident Evil) – although I will defend Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li as a comic masterpiece – and that trend doesn’t look to be ending anytime soon as Duncan Jones’ Warcraft hits theaters and lands somewhere between those two extremes.
Durotan (voiced by Toby Kebbell) is a hulking Orc with a muscular wife and a bouncing baby on the way, but he has no time for joy as their world is dying. He suspects the shaman, Gul’dan (voiced by Daniel Wu), is to blame, but when the wizard builds a portal that opens onto the land of Azeroth and sends through a squad of Orcs in search of a new home Durotan goes along for the ride. He quickly finds himself at odds with Gul’dan’s genocidal plan, and with the help of a “half-breed” named Garona (Paula Patton) he devises an alternate course of action.
Azeroth’s current residents aren’t too keen on the attacks, but while the elves and dwarves look the other way humanity goes on the defensive with King Wrynn (Dominic Cooper) in charge. At his side are the warrior Lothar (Travis Fimmel), the wizard Medivh (Ben Foster), and the magical apprentice Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer). Oh, he also has access to giant birds who, in the grand tradition of The Lord of the Rings, are severely underused.
Warcraft’s biggest fault is that there’s nothing really to love or hate about it. The film’s neither a success nor a failure, and instead it too often feels generic instead of fantastic. The story is deceptively simple enough, but it’s dense with characters who rarely achieve the level of vaguely memorable. The CG and motion-capture are solid, but they’re in service of scenes that can’t quite excite. It’s a competent-enough fantasy film, but even that goodwill is squandered by devoting too much time to setting up a sequel.
The script by Jones and Charles Leavitt (Seventh Son, which means someone saw that and inexplicably hired him for another fantasy film) takes the resource/combat model from the games as their setup – the Orcs need resources so they’ve come to fight for them – and fleshes it out with some minor character conflict.
Characters of supposed importance are too numerous, and the result is a lack of concern as we never get enough time with anyone before being whisked away to a different subplot. Durotan has drama over betraying his own kind, Lothar is worried about his soldier son, Garona is a slave to the Orcs and a freak to the humans, the king is overcome having to protect his kingdom, Khadgar is suspicious, Medivh has indigestion… none of them find real drama as they’re just not given the time. The film could easily have followed the mirrored journeys of Durotan and Lothar, two warriors fighting for their families, and mined conflict there.
Better yet, Garona would have made for an ideal focal point. The half-Orc/half-whatever character already embodies the idea of two worlds in conflict, and she’s one of only two characters here who exhibit real personality (with Khadgar being the other). Patton brings spunky life to the role, and she quickly becomes the one you want to see more of, but the film fails to oblige and ultimately fails to settle on a main character at all.
Where the script, story, and characters drop the ball though is where the action and visuals pick it back up again. As dull as this inter-species quarrel is their battles and bouts are far from boring. Big clashes, like the one pictured above offer some high points both for the wide shots and the close-up brawling. The Orcs muscle their way to victory early on – one even throws a horse! – before the humans are forced to get a bit more creative in their fighting, and these sequences offer some fun. Similarly, acts of magic are given a visual/audible flourish that adds a bit of a pop to certain scenes.
The Orcs are well-crafted and display enough unique features to typically tell them apart from each other – although it’s unclear what the distinction is between the green and the grey – and the mo-cap work is strong enough to allow detailed interactions with each other and their surroundings.
Warcraft feels like a movie that should have opened seven years ago alongside the likes of the similarly dull but visually impressive Avatar. A tighter script, a stronger focus on main characters – and more Paula Patton! – would have gone a long way toward elevating this from the quagmire of video game adaptations into the realm of fantasy films set in worlds we can’t wait to revisit.