Warcraft is a film that’s taken a hell of a long time to get made. The project has changed directors several times (once residing in the hands of Sam Raimi) but after ten years it’s finally made its way into cinemas for fans and newcomers to the franchise to see. However, video game films have a sketchy track record at best and even under the guidance of director Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code) there’s a lot that could go wrong.
Presumptively-titled Warcraft: The Beginning, the film kicks off by introducing us to the orcish side of the franchise’s central conflict. Faced with an uninhabitable homeland, the orcish warlock Gul’Dan (Daniel Wu) uses dark fel magic to tear open a portal in time and space for them to invade the lush and peaceful world of Azeroth. Even at the prologue-stage, this movie goes pretty all-in on the heavier lore right from the get go in a way that’s both intimidating and kind-of exciting.
Faced with a string of brutal defeats against an unknown enemy, the King of Stormwind (Dominic Cooper) enlists Lothar (Travis Fimmel) and Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) to summon the Guardian Medivh (Ben Foster) and learn the source of the troubles. Meanwhile, back on the Horde side of things, the orcs struggles with growing dissent between traditionalist and radicalist factions in their midst.
As mentioned previously, there’s a lot of world-building happening in this movie – and we haven’t started on the appearances by elves, dwarves and murlocs. Still, Durotan (Toby Kebbel) acts as an effective anchor for the orcish side of the film. Like the human characters, he’s driven by a sympathetic desire to protect his own over any hunger for battlefield glory. Kebbel’s performance is very much the most in-tune with the material here, offering up a character who feels right out of the games. If anything, it’s the humans of Warcraft that are the weakest part.
Though it’s definitely worth acknowledging all this setup presents a steep learning curve for newcomers, the payoff is that the final film doesn’t always play out the way you might expect a traditional fantasy story to. The orcs aren’t depicted as a faceless horde of monsters, the good guys don’t always win and, in a surprising move for the start of a franchise, people die. Foster’s Medivh feels a little underdeveloped, but that aside the plot hangs together about as well as any other modern franchise film. If Jones’ goal with the film is to introduce us to the world of Azeroth through the first contact between orcs and humans, it’s hard not to call it adequate.
The exaggerated faux-edginess of the source material remains mostly intact – for better or worse – but the film isn’t afraid to have fun with it. Interactions between Garona (Paula Patton) and the human cast yield some unexpectedly humorous moments and there’s one particular use of magic that comes so far out of left field it’s hard not to smile and enjoy the moment. There’s a geeky weirdness here that feels faithful to the franchise.
The designs for the orcs themselves is mostly handled well – though Patton’s Garona feels out of place as the sole non-CG orc. At its best, it feels on par with something like Avatar and the battle scenes often feel right out of the games. On the other hand, the special effects for the magic in the film are a bit more uneven. When eyes start to glow and lightning sparks from the fingertips of characters, it becomes hard to the film take seriously. The other big weakness of the film is the pacing. The first half hour is a roller-coaster ride of big visual moments and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it world-building. However, the film drops off sharply after that. It becomes mired in the melodrama of its human cast before settling into a relatively comfortable pattern of building and breaking tension each time the heroes of the two sides come into contact.
Still, it’s hard not to have at least a little fun here. The film’s thematic focus on the corruption of power and the humanity of war occasionally feels a little self-serious – but it does feel true to the source material. What’s more, it gives the film somewhat of a defined identity that separates from other fantasy blockbusters.
Warcraft isn’t going to go down as one of the best fantasy films ever made. It’s not going to win awards for its performances or script and it’s far from the best action movie to grace screens over the last twelve months. As much as I like the Warcraft franchise, its insatiable lust to be cool occasionally veers the material off into strange, cartoonish and frankly-dumb directions. However, I’ve often enjoyed the franchise in spite of this characteristic and it’s the replication of this quality that makes the film feel like a breath of fresh air and kind-of exactly what a Warcraft movie should be.
It’s to the credit of Jones that a mainstream blockbuster based on Warcraft feels this way and as a long-time fan of the franchise, it’s hard to imagine a film truer to that material than this one. Warcraft has always played with big ideas just as likely to turn out inane and ridiculous as they are compelling, and the film feels the same way. It lacks the effortless-grace of Lord of the Rings and the grand scale of Game of Thrones but Warcraft: The Beginning feels like, if nothing else, a foundation upon which something really special could be built. In the meantime, the film makes for an ambitious experience even if it strains (and ultimately buckles) under the weight of its own mythology.