Editor’s Notes: Warcraft opens in wide theatrical release today, June 10th.
Hollywood just might be the most optimistic place in the world. Despite failure after failure (video games adaptations), despite disappointment after disappointment (same), studio executives repeatedly convince themselves that this time, this time, the result will be different. This time, both hardcore fans of the videogame franchise in question and non-videogame fans will come out in record-breaking numbers and make the videogame adaptation an undisputed box-office hit. The immutable law of averages suggests those nameless studio executives will be right some day. That day, however, isn’t today and that videogame adaptation (actually an adaptation of a long-running, online role-playing videogame), Warcraft: The Movie, won’t become the videogame-to-screen adaptation to rule them. On one level, it’s an almost admirable misfire. It’s overflowing with the mandatory Lord of the Rings- and Game of Thrones-inspired scale, scope, and spectacle. But what it doesn’t have – relatable, complex characters, plausible, commonsensical world-building, and the resolution of its central conflict – doom it to also-ran, soon-to-be forgotten status.
It’s all the more disappointing given the obvious talents of Duncan Jones, the Moon and Source Code director who showed so much promise just a few years ago.
It’s all the more disappointing given the obvious talents of Duncan Jones, the Moon and Source Code director who showed so much promise just a few years ago. An admitted “World of Warcraft” gamer, Jones dove head-first into adapting the online video game to the big screen, co-writing the script with Charles Leavitt, and working diligently with Blizzard Entertainment, the videogame company behind the online game, to deliver an immersive experience to fans and non-fans alike with the best visual effects that a reported $160 million budget could buy. Jones undoubtedly succeeds in bringing magnificently realized visuals to the big screen, but he succeeds almost beyond expectation in delivering fully conceptualized CGI characters who live, breath, fight, and die with remarkable verisimilitude. Even as borderline cartoonish as some of those CGI characters, mostly orcs of varying hues, colors, and tribal affiliations, they look and feel like the next, evolutionary step, one most moviegoers would willingly embrace, albeit in a different context.
That convoluted context involves a war between humans and orcs. The humans live in relatively peaceful plenitude in the land of Azeroth. Inhabitants of a dying, deforested world, Draenor, the orcs want what the humans and the little seen members of their Alliance (e.g., dwarves, elves), have and they’ll do anything, up to and including genocide to find a new world for their people. Their leader, Gul’dan (Daniel Wu), wields a powerful dark magic, the life-sucking Fel. The Fel can open portals between worlds, but only through the lives of sacrificial victims. Typically power-mad, Gul’dan doesn’t even hesitate to engage in mass murder as long as he remains in power and the Fel leads his people to a new world to conquer and pillage. Only one tribal leader, Durotan (Toby Kebbell), shows signs of a conscience. Despite joining the war party along with his pregnant wife, Draka (Anna Galvin), in crossing over to Azeroth from Draenor, Durotan doubts both Gul’dan’s intentions and his plans. Durotan doesn’t see the survival of his people in Gul’dan’s plans, only their end.
Jones undoubtedly succeeds in bringing magnificently realized visuals to the big screen, but he succeeds almost beyond expectation in delivering fully conceptualized CGI characters who live, breath, fight, and die with remarkable verisimilitude.
Durotan, however, represents the pinnacle of character development in Warcraft: The Movie. The human characters far much, much worse. They’re the usual assortment of dutiful kings, loyal wives, resolute commanders, and well-intentioned mages. The king, Llane Wrynn (Dominic Cooper), soon learns of the orc incursion and puts his number one commander and brother-in-law, Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), in charge of repelling the invasion. Llane’s wife, Lady Taria (Ruth Negga), does little except offer her emotional and verbal support, while Lothar reacts with the obligatory military favor. A novice mage, Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), finds himself thrust into the middle of action, first in support of the senior mage on the premises and Azeroth’s chosen Guardian, Medivh (Ben Foster), and later on his own when Medivh becomes weakened by repeat encounters with the Fel. Garona (Paula Patton), a half-human, half-orc (all-exposition device) kidnapped/rescued by Lothar and his men, rounds out the major characters.
It all might be a lot, maybe too much, for most moviegoers unfamiliar with the “World of Warcraft” or its antecedents (Warcraft: The Movie unfolds well before “World of Warcraft”). Too much happens too fast. Too many ideas (e.g., immigration, xenophobia, genocide) get thrown around with little, if any, proper introduction, let alone explanation. Jones rarely lets up on the somber, serious tone. Add to that a stubborn refusal – or maybe it’s just unrealistic optimism rearing its orc-shaped head – to give audiences an ending, any ending, that resolves the central conflict and ties up loose ends (an ultra-obvious sequel play) and result is anything but satisfying on any level. It feels like an over-expensive prequel to a film or a series that will never get made. Unfortunately, Jones deserves some of the blame, if only for agreeing to whatever limitations and restrictions Blizzard, Legendary, and Universal imposed on him.