Directed by Duncan Jones
Legendary Pictures, out now
Azeroth faces annihilation at the hands of the Horde, an alliance of Orcs fleeing their dying homeworld of Draenoth through a portal opened by the evil sorcerer Gul’Dan. The only hope for the races of Azeroth to survive is to learn to trust in each other, as well as in those who could so easily be their foes.
If that sounds like a fairly generic (albeit stuffed) introduction, then that’s because essentially, that’s what Warcraft: The Beginning is. The tropes fly thick and fast as one might expect from a high fantasy movie based on the world’s best-selling fantasy online RPG, but the generic nature of Azeroth’s fantasy world and the races within it is not the main problem that this film faces.
Clocking in at two hours, and with an obvious mandate to broaden the appeal of the franchise to a wider audience, one thing that you can never accuse Warcraft of being is dull. The movie fairly steams along from one action-packed set piece to the next, interspersed with short periods of talking and exposition that serve – if we are being honest – merely to propel the movie on to the next big special effects bit.
And in fairness to Jones, he makes those brief bits of dialogue count as much as he can. A tender exchange between Durotan, the main Orc protagonist, and his wife Draka serves as a great lead in to one of the main themes of the movie, about the next generation and what sort of future can be left to them. A faintly absurd three-hander scene between main human hero Lothar, young human mage Khadgar and half orc Garona serves to give the movie a nice, grounded break from all of the high fantasy magical shenanigans. There are snapshots in here of a great director inserting depth and character into a piece that could conceivably have had neither.
Unfortunately, they tend rather to suffer from the fact that so much other stuff has been shoehorned in. There are Dwarfs and Elves in Azeroth, but their brief appearances add nothing to the plot and basically feel like they serve simply to let the Warcraft-savvy among the audience know that the studio remembers that these races exist. There are a couple of particularly awkward overhead shots of battles which you honestly expect to have ‘Not real gameplay footage’ flash up beneath, such is their similarity to an advert for a real time strategy video game. And there are various, awkward expositionary scenes (including almost ten minutes of info dump right at the start, where the movie skips from one location to the next complete with captions naming the various locations) where the viewer is force-fed information about the realm, the races within it, the way magic works etc. It all adds up to a film that starts to feel a little divided, unsure of whether it is trying to drag in new audiences or satiate existing ones, and flailing awkwardly as it misses both.
Which isn’t to say that this is a bad film. There are genuine flashes of brilliance here. It uses tropes but remains unafraid to play around with the formula. The ending is a genuine surprise, though the reasoning behind it could be read from a cynical viewpoint as being quite self-serving. There are a number of character deaths that would seem more fitting for something like Game of Thrones than this sort of bright, colourful fantasy fayre. There are several genuinely touching moments between characters, and the action set pieces are on the whole really quite impressive.
In some ways, this is the perfect videogame adaptation – wherein the story seems to exist purely to propel the player/viewer on to the next action sequence. That it tries to be something more is laudable, and that it doesn’t always fail even more so. What we have here is the fantasy equivalent of Joss Whedon’s Age of Ultron – a story that has interesting things to say, but which has to compromise on how they are said in order to shoehorn in more fan references and more wider-universe hints to build up towards a franchise. Part of me hopes that Jones gets a shot at making the sequel that the film so clearly begs for at the close, but the more sensible part of me realises that it’s unlikely. As an occasional Warcraft player myself, I can see how the film will disappoint hardcore fans of the game and mildly bewilder those with no knowledge at all. I suspect this will, like so many videogame movies before it, be quietly consigned to the dustbin of cinema history.
Verdict: Fast and furious action coupled with exposition that tries too hard to be all things to all people and ends up buried under a wall of studio-led franchise demands. Set your expectations low and it’s an enjoyable enough ride, but not one that you’ll feel the need to repeat. 6/10
Greg D. Smith