Movie Review: “Warcraft”

Travis Fimmel, Toby Kebbell, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, Ben Schnetzer, Daniel Wu
Duncan Jones

Hollywood has a pretty awful track record with video game adaptations, so when it was announced that director Duncan Jones would be bringing the mega-popular “Warcraft” franchise to the big screen, many people were hopeful that he would finally break the curse. Sadly, it doesn’t even come close. Although there’s no question that Jones (a self-proclaimed fan of “World of Warcraft,” the massively multiplayer online RPG that boasted 12 million subscribers at the peak of its popularity) is a talented filmmaker, “Warcraft” is a disappointing misfire that swallowed up several years of his career. That’s time he could have spent making more original movies like “Moon” and “Source Code” instead of this sluggish and derivative fantasy flick.

The story begins in Draenor, the dying homeworld to a warrior race of orcs. Their leader, the evil sorcerer Gul’dan (Daniel Wu), uses a dangerous magic called the Fel – which feeds on the energy of life – to send a small war party of orcs through a portal to the peaceful realm of Azeroth in the hopes of conquering the land and using its inhabitants as fuel to transport the rest of the fleeing Horde. But not everyone agrees with his methods, particularly Durotan (Toby Kebbell), the noble chieftain of the Frostwolf Clan, who believes that Gul’dan’s obsession with the Fel is what caused Draenor to wither away. Meanwhile, the human forces of Azeroth – led by King Llane (Dominic Cooper), heroic warrior Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel) and powerful magician Medivh (Ben Foster) – scramble to defend their kingdom with the help of Garona (Paula Patton), a human/orc half-breed who must decide where her true loyalty lies: with the orc Horde that raised her or the humans that freed her from a lifetime of slavery.

Much like “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” “Warcraft” is a disjointed mess that’s not nearly as much fun as it seems to think. The script does an admirable job of giving both sides of the conflict equal attention, but many of the scenes feel like they’ve been stitched together from the remnants of longer, more complex sequences. There are no fewer than 10 major characters, all of whom deserve more fleshed out storylines, while a number of promising subplots (including a potential alliance between Durotan and the humans) are discarded without reason. Perhaps most maddening, however, is the speed in which information is hurled at the audience. The movie jumps from location to location like a kid flipping through the pages of a comic book to get to the good stuff, casually introducing important characters and relationships as if it’s common knowledge. You shouldn’t need to be a veteran of the game to appreciate the film, and yet even though fans will have a slight advantage in this regard, it doesn’t help with the larger problems.

For starters, the writing is incredibly subpar, dragged down by overwrought clichés and incessant exposition, and the acting isn’t much better. Although Kebbell and Patton deliver fine work in their respective roles, everyone else falls somewhere in the range of mediocre to downright terrible. Ben Schnetzer, in particular, is so wooden as Medivh’s former apprentice that he turns what should have been an exciting character into an annoying sidekick type. Fimmel, who made a name for himself on the History Channel original series “Vikings,” clearly has the charisma to succeed as a leading man, but he’s hampered by cheesy dialogue and a lack of character development. Those issues aren’t limited to Fimmel, either; it’s difficult to identify with any of the characters because none of them rise above the two-dimensionality of their video game counterparts.

The one thing that Jones does get right is the visual effects, though even they pose a minor problem, as the orcs somehow look both photorealistic and cartoonish due to their exaggerated, true-to-game design. While certainly impressive on their own, the CG characters never really blend with the human actors, and Patton’s silly appearance (which is created with some very basic makeup effects) only compounds matters by failing to realistically bridge the gap between the two races. With that said, the motion capture technology employed on this film is remarkable, allowing for tiny subtleties in the performances (especially Kebbell’s Durotan) that make the orcs feel more human than the humans themselves. It’s a shame that Kebbell doesn’t get more to do in the role, because he’s easily the best thing about the movie.

Any hope that “Warcraft” would be the first great video game adaptation is promptly squashed within the opening 30 minutes, and it only gets worse from there as the audience is forced to suffer through the convoluted plot (including an unearned romance between Lothar and Garona), a clunky finale that’s more interested in setting up future sequels than providing a satisfying conclusion, and a handful of unmemorable action sequences. There are some enjoyable bits scattered throughout, but while that may be enough to please the legion of fans who invested hours upon hours into “World of Warcraft,” average moviegoers unaffected by that sort of fan service will see “Warcraft” exactly for what it is: just another bad video game film.