One of the most successful video game franchises which includes more than a dozen video games created between 1994 and 2016 in addition to board games, card games, novels and comic books, it was just a matter of time before Hollywood would turn its glass eye to Blizzard’s Warcraft in another futile attempt to successfully migrate a video game to the big screen with the key role of translator between those two media given to director Duncan Jones.
With his hands-on experience of games creation limited to the in-game cinematics for the political simulator Republic: The Revolution, Jones is more widely known for his feature films Moon and Source Code, the former of which was nominated for seven BAFTAs, winning two, yet his appointment to Warcraft remains a surprise, his first two films complex examinations of characters in crisis while story was never the strongest aspect of any of Blizzard’s games.
All their products, including Starcraft, the Diablo series and Overwatch, the newest addition to the family, are driven by conflict and the constant need for grinding experience points and better gear, a pattern which the Warcraft movie repeats.
Draenor is a dying world, and to survive its inhabitants, the orcs, must find a new home. The warlock Gul’dan (Europa Report’s Daniel Wu), master of fel, a powerful form of dark magic, opens a portal to Azeroth, a realm of humans, elves and dwarfs who live together in peace. Now this rich and fertile kingdom must face the advance guard of these unknown invaders and prevent them from reopening the portal to bring the rest of their people through.
And that is the sum total of the plot, a plain and predictable story driven by war which would struggle to surprise even viewers who were not familiar with the subject matter or the genre as a whole when every supposed twist is telegraphed from afar. With no desire to expand the audience beyond the existing fanbase, Jones offer little introduction, instead throwing the unsuspecting viewers into the deep waters of the Warcraft universe, bombarding them with names, characters and events, perhaps deliberately making it very hard to follow for anyone who is new to the history of Azeroth in an effort to disguise how little depth there is.
Warcraft doesn’t tell a story so much as races with it for 123 packed minutes of events and battles, one scene chasing another, and as a consequence the many characters have insufficient screen time to be established and develop. The video game origin of the characters is emphasised by their introductions, effectively labelling each of them according to their archetype and function in the narrative: Wrynn the king (Preacher’s Dominic Cooper), Lothar the brave knight (Vikings’ Travis Fimmel), Garona the half-breed (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol’s Paula Patton), Medivh the mage (Pandorum’s Ben Foster), and so on.
With the insane tempo of the movie, all these characters are underdeveloped and flat, the rushed delivery of their lines never allowing them to become more than pawns in the game. There are no truly convincing relationships between the characters, and whether it is a romance or father/son relationship, the necessary emotions and connections are absent from the screen, the audience told about them rather than shown them.
Ironically, the motion captured inhuman characters are the true marvel of the film and have more depth and are more convincing than the cast members who are present in body, as unable to act with their own faces and bodies the performers, including Fantastic Four‘s Toby Kebbell and John Dies at the End‘s Clancy Brown as orc chieftains Durotan and Blackhand, must convey more with their voices, breathing life into these digital creations.
Blizzard have always been known for their fantastic cinematic intros and in-game cutscenes, many fans still remembering scenes such as when Arthas killed his father in Warcraft 3, and Jones’ Warcraft feels like nothing more than a fan edited suprecut of such moments, and the feeling is that by introducing just another few levels between the existing scenes – investigate the forest, reach the top of the tower, defeat the end level boss – this would make a better game than it is a film.
Undeniably, Warcraft is visually stunning but rendered almost entirely in computer generated imagery it is unreal, a cartoon devoid of honesty and importance. Azeroth may be full of lush colour and rich in detail but it looks more like a theme park than a real and breathing world, and fans of The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones will miss the depth of those dirty worlds.
Lovers of those fantasy worlds will at least appreciate the weight of the magic which is presented in Warcraft, spells which look fantastic but only after a casting which requiring time and energy, runes which must be written and incantations recited correctly and completely, a more traditional approach than that seen all too often in modern fantasy movies where magic is treated almost as an innate and inexhaustible ability akin to the Force.
Despite its obvious flaws Warcraft is still enjoyable experience, the insane tempo of the movie preventing the viewer from considering the plot holes or the mediocre acting until after the assault is concluded, making Warcraft one of the better executed movie adaptation of a video game, though that in itself was not a steep hill for the massed armies to climb.