With its vast tapestry of knights, orcs, and mages, the World of Warcraft franchise was always going to be a tricky one to adapt. As fans of the MMORPG (I can’t claim to be one of them, though I did some research before heading into the pic) know well, there’s so much packed into the series’ lore that it inarguably lends itself better to encyclopedias than films.
And so director Duncan Jones, who makes a lot of very smart choices behind the camera of Warcraft, makes one of his wisest in choosing to tell an origin story for this world, working from the stories of the original strategy game that predated any online video-game take. In doing so, he’s able to focus the movie exponentially, making heroes and villains out of the individuals involved in World of Warcraft‘s catalyzing moment – the first encounter between humans and orcs.
For those totally new to the franchise, humans live in the very Tolkien-esque land of Azeroth, enjoying a long-kept peace under the benevolent reign of King Llane (Dominic Cooper). Orcs, on the other hand, hail from the dying world of Draenor, a planet that has been consumed by a dark magic known as the Fel. The orcs are a tribal people, but they’ve been united under the gnarled fist of evil warlock Gul’dan (Daniel Wu, though unrecognizable), who uses the Fel to open a portal into Azeroth in hopes of sending the Orc Horde through to conquer it.
Orc chieftain Durotan (Toby Kebbell) is one of the first through, although he’s far from a war-monger. With a loving wife (Anna Galvin) and newborn child, Durotan feels more than ever desperate to protect his tribe, and he can see plainly what Gul’dan’s more ardent followers cannot – that the Fel is a poison, one that can only ensure the destruction of everything around it.
It’s an impossible situation for him to be in – Gul’dan is far too powerful to confront, and no amount of trepidation about his methods can change the fact that the orcs’ homeworld is in its death throes. But Dorutan, much as he knows war is a way of life for orcs, agrees with Llane’s sentiment that, “War with us will solve nothing.” And Kebbell, utilizing a progression of the same motion-capture performance approach that defined Avatar and the last two Planet of the Apes movies, lets us see the agony of indecision in Durotan’s eyes. There’s something otherworldly about just how emotive some of the orcs are in Warcraft, and that character is its most richly realized, displaying more humanity beneath protruding tusks and thick brows than any actual human in the film.
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Another smart decision Jones makes is to throw us into Warcraft‘s mythology head first. He opens with a bruising, brutal orc-human fight straight out of the MMORPG, then cuts to Durotan in bed with his wife, discussing baby names. It’s bizarre, yes, but such juxtaposition spotlights the two main characteristics of the orcs upfront – their lust for battle, and their overriding sense of honor. None of it would work without Kebbell’s nuanced, confident portrayal of an orc caught between the two. He’s this film’s appropriately musclebound anchor.
Once Jones kicks over to the human side of things though, Warcraft starts to lose steam at an alarming rate. There are a host of stolid, Lord of the Rings-style heroes, from the valiant Lothar (Travis Fimmel) to the brash young mage Khadghar (Ben Schnetzer), but all of them are so typical of this kind of swords-and-sorcery fantasy that they entirely fail to leave an impression.
Cooper in particular seems to sleepwalk through the part of Llane, bringing nothing to it save a regal gravity in his voice. And Paula Patton, playing a half-human/half-orc hybrid wanted by neither world, fails to find much life in her hard-worn survivor character, which means her part in the movie serves only to undercut the grand illusion Jones is trying so hard to pull off. That’s to say nothing of Ben Foster, who’s on a different page than just about everyone else in the cast, playing mage Medivh with consummate theatricality while still trying to find some dramatic heft to a character whose dialogue leaves him with painfully little.
Given how much time Jones spends with these characters, that turns into a pretty major headache for Warcraft, one exacerbated by how his stiff and unwieldy script (co-written with Charles Leavitt) stuffs exposition into each of their mouths without regard for sounding completely ridiculous. Maybe Warcraft was always going to be campy, and that’s fine, but it’s still overcrowded with tidbits of information about its universe. The amount of story Jones has to compress into a two-hour movie means that some potentially interesting characters get to show up, drop some intel about their role in the film, then die – there’s simply no room for anything more than that.
Condensing the story as much as Jones and Leavitt do creates a whole bunch of problems, from a tone that zigzags all over the place and unsuccessfully stretches for comedy more than it should, to a profoundly depressing sense that after all Jones’ toiling, his film is just a lot of tablesetting for a sequel that will (based on the box office prognosis) never come. It also means that some of the absolutely fascinating themes Jones is brave enough to wrestle with here get short shrift.
With Medivh and Gul’dan both holding incredible sway over the fates of their respective worlds, there’s an interesting undercurrent about the inherent dangers of trusting in unchecked power structures, and the corruption that can seep into institutions unnoticed even while permeating their every activity. And the orcs’ plight, fleeing a dangerous world in hopes of a better one, mirrors that of millions of immigrants around the world today. There’s no clear right and wrong in the movie’s central conflict, and for a film as expensive and commercial-minded as this, that’s a bold statement.
All in all, Jones has made a Warcraft that the franchise’s fans will love – it’s ferociously true to its fantasy roots, even when such devotion renders it silly at times when it’s trying to be serious, and it’s dauntless about setting up tough, tricky moral conflicts that it has no hope of (or interest in) resolving neatly. There’s incredibly admirable, hell-for-leather ambition to the entire picture, and that carries it through the clunkiest dialogue and most wooden performances, even if it can’t quite cover up the stunning messiness of the plot and pace. There’s a legitimate wonder to becoming submerged in the world Jones has clearly poured his heart and soul into creating, and for that reason, Warcraft may not be a quote-unquote good movie, but it is an intriguing, worthwhile experience.
Hobbled by mediocre acting, bad pacing and worse writing, Warcraft is still a visual milestone and a cinematic experience worth getting hopelessly lost in.