Director: Duncan Jones
Starring: Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, Toby Kebbell, Ben Schnetzer, Ruth Negga, Rob Kazinsky, Clancy Brown, Daniel Wu, Glenn Close
Runtime: 123 minutes
(THIS REVIEW CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS)
“I would struggle to think of any other video game movie that can be described as a great movie. That’s what I wanted to do … I wanted to make a great film that just happened to be based on a video game.” The words of Duncan Jones, director of Warcraft, in an interview with techcrunch.com. He’s right on one score, it is a struggle to think of any great video game movie. But sadly his good intentions to rectify that have fallen flatter than Serena Williams’ ill-advised rap career. Warcraft is just plain dull, heavy on CGI but light on substance, with a flimsy plot and characters that don’t inspire you to root for them. But it’s most fatal flaw is that it is clearly made with only the fan base of the games it’s based on in mind; as such, it alienates the casual viewer (of which I am one), and kills any hope of being well received from the outset.
For the uninitiated, Warcraft is the hugely popular online role-playing game franchise developed by Blizzard Entertainment, released in 1994. It takes place in the fictional world of Azeroth, where players create a character avatar, through which they carry out various quests, battle monsters and interact with other players in the game. The player must also choose between two opposing factions, the Alliance or the Horde, and assign a class to their character such as warrior, priest, etc. At it’s peak, the game boasted over 12 million subscribers, but that number has been steadily dropping year on year, and it’s hard to imagine this dismal film adaptation contributing to a rise in those figures.
Jones (the son of the late great David Bowie, in case you didn’t know) not only served as director on this film, but co-wrote the script as well. From a man with an already demonstrated talent that gave us intense, intelligent offerings with his previous films Moon (2009) and Source Code (2011), it’s hard to believe that he didn’t spot the glaringly obvious flaws in this film, most obvious of which is the assumption that the sections of the audience not familiar with the game would be somehow able to understand all the vague references to it’s mythology. Characters spout vast amounts of fantasy jargon, name dropping gaming elements such as the Fel, the Guardian of Tirisfal, and Mak’gora duels, without even the slightest explanation as to who,what or why they are. If you’re a subscriber to the game then you should know whats going on and perhaps even find some enjoyment here. If you’re like me however (and my brother for that matter, who saw the film with me), you’ll feel like you’ve missed a trick in not swallowing a Warcraft gaming guide before you entered the theatre. More often than not, adaptations that come with an already established fan base are lambasted for not delivering the film that said fan base had hoped for. To it’s credit, Warcraft doesn’t suffer in this respect; I would imagine that most fans of the games would be, if not overjoyed, at least happy with it’s representation on screen. But there is no doubt that Warcraft is a movie for the fans, and only the fans and it’s curious that executives at Universal would allow such a thing to happen.
Of course, audience alienation is a big problem, but it’s not the only one. The plot’s pretty ropey to. Basically, the Orcs for some reason (it’s never really explained why) decide they’ve had enough of their world and travel through a portal to the human realm of Azeroth. They declare war on the humans in an effort to get the portal up and running again so more of their kind can pass through. That’s about it. Paper-thin storylines are all well and good in a video game, where the main focus is rightly on game-play, but a movie needs something meatier to help immerse you. And any side story here is only present in order to increase franchise probability; case in point, the films ending involving a new born Orc child, which also has a bizarre reference to the prophet Moses. It’s highly presumptive, but due to the films huge success in China, a sequel appears to be inevitable.
As dull as the plot may be, none of the characters in this film are capable of elevating it. The Warcraft games seem to be built on the idea that heroes are present on both sides of the conflict and players can thus empathise with the characters motivations. The problem here is that with all of the characters so poorly drawn, you don’t feel inclined to root for any them, or their cause. Anduin Lothar, head of the human Alliance played by Travis Fimmel, is neither as charismatic or as fearsome as you’d hope, and essentially feels like a cut price Aragorn. Paula Patton’s Garona on paper is what you would expect to get if you conducted a cloning experiment using Guardians of the Galaxy’s Gamora and Game of Thrones Osha the Wilding. The problem is, she’s nowhere near as fierce or as likable as either of them, and the filmmakers can’t even seem to make sense of her back story, so how the hell are we supposed to. And the obligatory romance between her and Anduin is teased (presumably to be explored in the sequel) but with zero chemistry displayed between the two before this happens, it just feels forced. Ben Foster over acts as the reclusive wizard Medivh, a character whose motivation is impossible to pin down. Dominic Coopers King Llane is uninspiring, while Ben Schnetzer’s turn as mage Khadgar plumbs new depths of annoying. The only human character that comes across anyway well is Ruth Negga’s Lady Taria, but even at that she’s barely in it (a blessing in disguise for the consistently talented actress perhaps). The jarring thing here is that none of the above are bad actors. They have simply been either miscast or under served by the script (in some cases both).
The Orc characters are equally underwhelming and empathy is lacking here to, despite an attempt to make Toby Kebbell’s Durotan-the main protagonist on the Orc side- more relatable by presenting him with a wife and new born child. But at least the Orc’s have one thing going for them in that they have been beautifully rendered on screen. Their design, as well as the design of the various locations in the Warcraft universe are the only thing to write home about in this film- even if Lord of the Rings does both better, credit where credit is due.
Bottom line: Warcraft is a failure. It alienates all it’s non game playing audience by bombarding them with gaming references without explanation, it’s plotting and characters are weak and it desperately strives to set up a wider universe in the hope of sequels, that really only a die-hard fan of the games would rush to see I suspect. If you’re a fan of the games I’d say take a trip and see it as you will probably find more to like than I did. If you’re not, give it a miss….unless you fancy doing research before you go to get you up to speed. But who wants to do that? Films are supposed to transport us without the need for that.
P.S. Keep an eye out for Glenn Close’s truly bizarre, blink and you’ll miss it cameo. I’m presuming it’s to be treated as an introduction to a character that they plan to flesh out more in the future. Otherwise, what possessed her?