Warcraft might as well come with a pamphlet that reads “The First Good Video Game Movie.” That’s certainly the intent at least, as it seems like director Duncan Jones has been all but dropping to his knees begging us to like this film for the past couple years. On paper, why wouldn’t we? Jones is a true visionary, his debut films Moon and Source Code both exceptional pieces of science fiction. In fact, he’s a lifelong fan of the Warcraft series, which is a far cry from the hired gun studios normally dump on video game films. If anybody was going to transport us to Azeroth, turning it into a living, breathing world that would finally make significant others the world over understand why their loved ones spent days without leaving the house, Jones was the guy. This earnestness runs through the entire film and is what ultimately makes it so tragic that Warcraft is an absolute mess of a film.
The film details two sides of what ultimately amounts to a turf war between the humans and orcs of Azeroth. The orcs have migrated from their own destroyed world, with the vicious Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) hoping to take his new home entirely for his own. However, warrior and recent father Durotan (Toby Kebbell) finds himself doubting his leader’s commands, hoping to form an alliance with the humans instead. Speaking of which, the human side of things finds Sir Lothar (Travis Fimmel) is ordered by King Wrynn (Dominic Cooper) to find a weakness in the orc army. The mage Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) is along for the ride, as is a halfbreed orc by the name of Garona (Paula Patton) who may be the key to winning the war.
Warcraft’s failure is made all the more fascinating by the few things that it does do right. Jones was clearly aiming for a game-changing film here, and the freshest fruits of his efforts bloom whenever the orcs own the screen. Not only are these creatures beautifully designed, never composited to look hyper-realistic so much as to blend perfectly with their mostly artificial environments, but they’re brought to life by very solid motion capture performances as well. Kebbell, who has really been making a name for himself in these motion capture roles, is particularly engaging as the conflicted Durotan. Ironically enough, his interactions with his wife and friends are the only ones that feel truly relatable and human. The film would have done well to focus more on him, instead seemingly forcing itself to give the humans equal airtime, and that’s where it all starts to fall apart.
Every single human character in this film is so dull one almost has to wonder if they were purposely stripped of all dimension. These poor actors seem to have no idea what they are reacting off of, and as such come off more like Medieval Times performers than characters. Fimmel in particular almost single-handedly sinks the whole film with his half-hearted attempts at both a stoic and cocksure hero. He sounds as if he’s short of breath half the time, and seems to be staring at the door of the soundstage the whole time, begging to leave. Cooper, Schnetzer, and Ben Foster are largely similar with characters that are hardly fleshed out beyond a wealth of trivia facts for hardcore fans of the game. Suffering most of all is Paula Patton, draped in practical makeup that clashes with the entire aesthetic of the film while desperately trying to make us feel something for the admittedly slightly more soulful Garona. We can certainly see that these people are fighting, but we never really understand who they are or why we should care.
This disconnection makes a series of well-realized action sequences come off completely cold. Sure, Jones has a graceful eye as he relishes every inch of the battle, but watching the same battle while blindfolded would have the same emotional impact. Even when characters die in surprisingly brutal ways, it feels like it is more for cheap shock value or plot purposes rather than the consequences of a sadistic war. The film is so stone-faced that all of the joy and fun that could come from this potentially stunning world is replaced with cynical laughter at how anybody could have invested any time into this at all.
Warcraft feels like the result of a studio finding a bunch of elementary school kids re-enacting the video game during recess, and giving them $160 million to make a film. Half of these poor suckers don’t even want to be playing, merely sticking around so that they don’t have to be alone, which makes the ones who do all the more ridiculous. There’s really no pleasure to be taken in bashing this film. There is clearly so much love in every frame, that frankly it may have worked better as a fan-film. Longtime lovers of the game seem to be enjoying the film a bit more, so perhaps there is an audience for this, and I am genuinely happy for them. Meanwhile, I still have full faith that Jones is going to deliver many great films over the course of a long career, and doesn’t get stigmatized as the guy who burnt a bunch of money whilst getting a bit too lost in a world that he loved.