A big-budget version of Warcraft hits the big screen this weekend, yet despite some expensive-looking FX work Blizzard Entertainment’s first major film endeavor feels more like a television pilot than a summer blockbuster. A dozen or so characters live in the admittedly beautifully-realized CGI world of Azeroth, but what's here would be better served as an exciting season opener. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you're already a fan of the series, but know this: it will take a big box office haul to ensure a sequel.
Like the first X-Men (2000) movie, Warcraft comes close to feeling like an adaptation that fans might get into. Finally, a video game movie that has a plethora of characters and other aspects ready to be mined for future installments. (Let’s face it, X-Men also felt more like a pilot than a stand-alone movie.) They key difference, though, is one that doesn’t bode well for Warcraft; Prof X’s School for the Gifted had the engaging Australian actor Hugh Jackman playing Wolverine. With just that snarl, a franchise was born, bub.
NOTE: For those interested in whom all these characters are and how they stack up to their PC origins, read Jonathan Leack’s terrific piece that does just that here.
For those who wouldn’t know how to Google directions from Frostfire Ridge to Stormwind Keep, here’s a quick summary of the plot: Azeroth has known peace for generations but now stands on the brink of war. Orcs, a big greenish warrior species have had to flee their dying world of Draenor. A magical portal opens up bringing the Orcs in direct collision with a race of men. Both sides have heroes and villains. Obviously.
Wisely, the film begins with a direct point of view of an Orc. We meet Frostwolf head Durotan (if you watch Game of Thrones, think “House Frostwolf”) who in a quiet moment with his mate considers the life of his unborn child. Durotan (Toby Kebbell) is a massive CGI invention, with muscles upon muscles, yet his eyes convey one who is tired of war and tired of not having a home for his family. Instantly, Duraton is a sympathetic character, which, considering how brutish and loud the Orcs can be, is sort of a miracle.
Eventually, we meet the humans. Lothar (Viking‘s Travis Fimmel) is the right-hand man to King Llane (Preacher‘s Dominic Cooper). Both men are understandably worried about what they perceive as hording Orc invaders. Without giving too much away, both sides have powerful mages and (shocker!) as is tradition in fantasy, sorcerers… you probably shouldn't trust them.
Well, okay, not all of them. Wizard-in-training Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) is a likeable, if a tad bland, counterpoint to the human’s main go-to mage (here called ‘guardians’) Medivh (Ben Foster). The evil wizard on the Orc side is Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) who in one of the film’s best moments, feeds off a prisoner’s lifeforce the way one munches on potato chips. Visually, every spell has a crisp look as runes rotate with thunderous sounds.
Director Duncan Jones (Moon) is, at best, an interesting choice to helm such an huge undertaking like Warcraft. He's on solid footing with the film's smaller moments including a scene involving Garona, a half-Orc, half-human being played by Paula Patton (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol). The actress is a good choice, delivering the right balance of conviction and physicality. But the big stuff, like the large-scale action scenes feel "fake epic" having zero emotional heft.
There are other odd choices. The opening of the film is an over-the-shoulder battle which would be fitting if this was a film inspired by GTA or Assassin’s Creed but WoW isn’t really played that way. On the plus side, a sweeping shot of the world map panning across every battle excursion is spot-on Warcraft II. Still, I have no idea from watching this movie if Jones has ever lost hundreds of hours playing WoW himself.
Speaking of people who have actually played WoW, while I understand that the main characters in the film are based on ones in the game, the casting feels like a missed opportunity diversity-wise. Patton and the queen played by Ruth Negga are both non-Caucasian but in general, save for a few background actors or Wu who mocapped the CGI Orc sorcerer, Warcraft doesn’t represent the literally millions of players in real-life who fashion their own characters and lose themselves in this world. And really, that’s a shame.
Go online and you’ll see of all kinds of races, genders, etc. Or better still, go to Blizzcon and see the real faces of these fans. For the most part, the film is limited to mostly dudes and the CGI Orcs which is not really the heart of what makes WoW a decade-long success. (They do show a few Elves and Dwarves for a hot minute, but with the same uninspired casting.) Remember that by and large most of these characters in the film are just NPCs you get missions from in the game. What Blizzard’s megahit has always been is a world filled with an endless amount of real player personalities.
Overall, the story of these two warring groups is merely serviceable. What could have helped this film more is a bevy of side-runner stories. At one point, Garona is given a cool dagger as a weapon. She will use it (eventually) but not much is made of the weapon's origins. Another potentially cool scene has Khadgar utterly schooled by another wizard by having all his data burned to a crisp, but we don’t really get to spend enough much time on the actual investigation. These mini-quests would have done more to make the film's two hours memorable. As it stands, this feels like an introduction not really a full-fledged film.
Warcraft stands as the best video game adaptation of the year so far, although it wouldn’t be hard for this holiday’s Assassin’s Creed to overtake it. If you’re a fan and just want to see Azeroth on the big screen, a fun matinee is certainly a good decision. For the Horde!