The peaceful realm of Azeroth stands on the brink of war as its civilisation faces off against orc warriors fleeing their dying home to colonise another. As a portal opens to connect the two worlds, one army faces destruction and the other faces extinction. From opposing sides, two heroes are set on a collision course that will decide the fate of their family, their people, and their home.
A whole lot of things have to go seriously wrong for US$150 million to turn into a movie like Warcraft: The Beginning. To be fair to director Duncan Jones, who’s once-promising career (Moon, Source Code) has to have been seriously derailed by this misfire, it’s not all his fault. While the Warcraft games have been amazingly successful over the years, it’s their multi-player elements (which a movie can’t capture) and not their utterly generic fantasy trappings that have brought in the fans. And this is definitely for the fans: rather than showing us amazing things to fill viewers with wonder, everyone seemingly agreed that the real audience for this film would already be familiar with everything, so any attempt to build up mystery or awe would just be a waste of time. It’s a vast mystical land of magic and wonder where everything feels like a tossed-off in-joke.
Worse, making a movie based on a line of games stretching back well over a decade means that the filmmakers are locked into replicating fantasy visuals that were derivative before Gary Gygax released 'Advanced Dungeons & Dragons' back in 1977. Generic castles? Yep. Underground Dwarven Kingdoms? Sure. A giant evil portal? Tick. A big fight seemingly set in a disused quarry? Guess the money had to run out sometime. In 2016, being able to deliver a range of CGI-boosted fantasy landscapes is the bare minimum required for a film of this size: if you can’t back it up with a halfway decent story you’re in real trouble.
Big surprise: this film is in real trouble. 'World of Warcraft' gives you the opportunity to play as either part of the human-heavy Alliance or the Orc-led Horde, so we get both sides of the Orc-Human story here. Which isn’t automatically a bad thing, and the initial all-Orc prologue is efficient storytelling. Sure, they’re war-like and proud, especially Main Orc Durotan (Toby Kebbell in a motion-captured performance), but even rival clan leader Blackhand (Clancy Brown) isn’t all bad at first. Their land is dying, but their leader Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) is a glowing green wizard with a plan. That plan involves draining the souls out of their captives so pretty obviously it’s an evil one but hey, they’re desperate.
Then once the orcs arrive in the land of Azeroth via their soul-powered magic portal the story falls apart as for the next hour we jump between human characters and locations at a rapid rate. Who are we meant to care about? Where is anything taking place? Why are they making alliances with people we never see again? Being able to teleport between locations (and fly on hippogriffs when the magic network is offline) means there’s no real sense of scale here. It took three Lord of the Rings movies to walk across Middle Earth; these guys could have gone there and back during a commercial break.
In all this kerfuffle any hope of peace, love and understanding seems well out of reach until the humans capture half-orc Garona (Paula Patton in green paint). As basically a Klingon from Star Trek, she ends up siding with the forces opposed to soul stealing led by Sir Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel) and King Llane (Dominic Cooper). There’s also the wizard-like Guardian, Medivh (Ben Foster), young magic-user Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) and a bunch of other surplus knights and nobles. It all adds up to a pretty big cast for a two-hour film so you’d expect someone here would give a decent performance through the law of averages alone.
Unfortunately the only explanation for the acting is that even the people playing the humans expected to have their emotions added in later by computer. Schnetzer plays a junior wizard who can’t magic up a convincing expression; the usually reliable Cooper here plays a log inserted into a fancy suit of armour. Foster lets his hair do the work as a guy who might as well have been named Skeezy Jesus, and while having Fimmel repeat his character from Vikings would usually be a bad move, here it makes him the only personality-wielding human in the land.
Warcraft’s other big storytelling problem comes towards the end (basically, the middle stretch of the film is the good stuff, and it’s not all that good). With maybe twenty minutes to go it starts to become clear that everything we’ve seen is just there to set up a sequel. Not in a “what a cliffhanger!” kind of way, but the film’s high body count (which initially seemed like a smart way to make a fairly generic story interesting – lives were actually at stake) is really just clearing the decks so that the next film can focus on the characters who count. They’re easy to spot: they’re literally the only characters who have any plot development in this film.
It’s rare to say this, but this might have been a better film if they’d bit the bullet, made it three hours long, and finished up the story they started to tell here. As it stands, Warcraft cuts off just as things are starting to get interesting – they’re just not interesting enough to bring anyone back for more.
Watch the trailer