There’s nothing more frustrating that seeing the potential of a great film without it actually being great – especially when it’s based on a stellar franchise that has been making the rounds for years. That’s the case with Warcraft, the latest attempt to adapt a video game universe into a two-hour something film, this time under the directing hand of Duncan Jones, who worked his magic on indie favorites like Moon and The Source Code.
Warcraft serves as Jones’ first big-budget film, and I’m not sure if it was something at the studio that went awry, or having to hack away enough at the story to make it fit at a reasonable length, but it just never really manages to stay the course. That’s not to say it’s a total loss – it’s astonishing with its visual effects and some of its action sequences – but you wince at the fact that more could’ve been done with it.
The film starts with an invasion of the Orcs to the world of Azeroth, under the guidance of the powerful sorcerer Gui’dan (Daniel Wu from Into the Badlands, but you’d barely recognize him under all the CG). He’s only able to bring a handful of his kind to this world, and orders his soldiers to work on re-opening a portal to get the rest.
Durotan (Toby Kebbell), one of the leaders of the Orc clans, doesn’t really feel this is the best plan, and, with a wife and child in tow, finds himself torn between choosing sides.
And that’s where the humans come in, with King Llane Wrynn (Dominic Cooper) trying to figure out what to do, with the help of loyal knight Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel) and a powerful guardian named Medivh (Ben Foster). There are others along for the ride as well, including half-human/half-Orc Garona (Paula Patton, a long way from Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol with green make-up and reverse fangs) and apprentice spellcaster Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer, who actually does a good job here).
To really explain any further would overcomplicate the plot, which the movie does in spades. As if a number of characters to the proceeds aren’t enough, there’s also a lot of dialogue that’s built for the fans, but will leave casual audiences scratching their heads. It’s like Lord of the Rings lite, but without the structure to guide it through. Oh, I’m sure fans will eat it up – until certain points pop up in the film where even they have to wonder what’s going on.
Again, I’m betting this isn’t all Jones’ fault. He co-wrote the script with Charles Leavitt, but probably had to condense so much just to make it all fit into the film, leaving room for a sequel (that is, if it gets a sequel). As a result, that leads to lots of cramming, with characters dying for barely any reason (no, really, the last 30 minutes had me going, “The hell?!”), a whole lot of nonsense, and a final fight so inconclusive, it’s even featured in some of the trailers. (Take a closer look and you’ll see what I mean.)
Not only that, performances are all over the place. Schnetzer, like I said, is great as Khadgar, and Cooper actually makes a pretty good king – keep in mind that this is the guy that put Tony Stark on the map, and is currently working his magic as Preacher. (Speaking of which, his co-star Ruth Negga, who plays Tulip in that show, is here as his wife – and not bad in the role.)
On the other hand, Fimmel, fresh from Vikings, doesn’t do much with his character. You try to sympathize with him, but, outside of a few battle skills, he really doesn’t have much to offer. Foster doesn’t have much to do as Medivh, aside from being annoyed by pretty much everything. And Patton, as accomplished an actress as she is, can do very little with her character, mainly because of the somewhat average make-up and even more painfully average dialogue.
The Orcs fare much better, thanks to spectacular motion-capture work and effects. Wu makes a great villain; Clancy Brown (yep, he’s an Orc) does a good job as his second-in-command Blackhand; and Kebbell is pretty good as Durotan – you can actually feel like he’s trying to make a difference in a movie that doesn’t have much interest in doing so.
Like I said, despite the wobbly storytelling and weird acting choices, the movie does have merit – and that lies with its visual effects. Jones and his team have done a stellar job here, with some outstanding-looking Orcs, vividly designed settings (save for a few that look a little too fake for their own good), and some decent action sequences that make up for the lacking ones. This is a film that justifies some of its cost with its visual effects – I just wish it had a more coherent story to back them up.
And that brings me back to last 30 minutes of the film. Like I said, I won’t spoil it here, but a number of people are going to say, “Wait, that’s it?!” Yep, afraid so, and it makes sitting through the two-something hours almost unjustified. I say “almost” because, again, those visual effects and the handful of decent performances here. Not to mention that Jones actually doesn’t do a half bad job directing – it’s just the storytelling that really takes a tumble.
Warcraft is another one of those mixed video game films, one that could’ve used more balance between being loyal to its fans and still tolerable for general audiences. That’s probably too tall an order for any director, especially Jones, who probably had a lot of dependence from others going in, only to end up with his hands tied in the long run. As it stands, he makes a superb looking film, but it lacks the depth to stand tall with the likes of Lord of the Rings. You probably shouldn’t depend on a sequel. Chances are Warcraft will go back to doing what it does best – rocking the video game world.
At least Warcraft wasn’t Dungeons and Dragons. Now that’s how you screw up a franchise.