Like a video game that’s all cut scenes and no interaction, Warcraft lumbers across the screen with a sense of inescapable tedium. Whereas most films are content to adhere to the traditional narrative structure of beginning, middle, and end, Warcraft sits itself firmly down in the beginning and refuses to move forward for its entire two-hour runtime. It’s only one of the many problems with this misbegotten, would-be franchise-starter that only the most diehard players of Blizzard Entertainment's series will likely get any true enjoyment out of.
WARNING! MAY CONTAIN MILD SPOILERS.
The plot, as much as there is one, revolves around a horde of orcs ruled by evil sorcerer Gul’dan (Daniel Wu). Using a dark, life-draining magic called the Fel, Gul’dan plans on relocating his people from their barren wasteland of a world to the lush, human world of Azeroth. Responding to the threat as all good fantasy monarchs do, King Llane (Dominic Cooper) enlists the aid of Azeroth’s resident archmage Medivh (Ben Foster), and a small party of adventurers that includes knight Lothar (Travis Fimmel), wizard-in-training Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), and half-orc warrior Garona (Paula Patton). They may or may not have an ally on the orc side with noble war chief Durotan (Toby Kebbell), one of the few orcs who rightfully deduces that Gul’dan’s uncontrolled use of the Fel is what destroyed the orc home world in the first place.
In the hands of a skilled director, even that collection of boilerplate fantasy tropes could make for an interesting, entertaining film. By all rights and expectations, Duncan Jones should be that director, having proven himself already with the lean, mind-bending sci-fi films Moon and Source Code. Unfortunately, when given the key to Hollywood and a nine-digit budget, Jones’ personal style and unique voice gets smashed and buried under a relentless barrage of tin-eared dialogue, wooden acting, and plasticine CGI armies.
Although the source material may have its share of milestones and creative depths, there is absolutely nothing innovative about the adaptation. Everything in it has been done better in other places, except for perhaps for a gorgeous CGI griffin that makes enough appearances to warrant a supporting cast credit. The film is constantly weighed down by a pervasive sense of laziness, from the numerous green-screen failures to the ponderous and simplistic fight scenes, which make even the punch/punch/slam duels of Batman V Superman look almost balletic. Half the cast is comprised of motion-captured characters, most of which look fine enough until they have to interact with the live-action portion of the film, although even then they don’t look as artificial as the sets.
That lackadaisical approach even extends to the actors; nobody gives a truly believable or dynamic performance, although a few come dangerously close to being interesting. Ben Schnetzer’s Khadgar stands out if only for the sense of youthful enthusiasm the actor seems to have for the material, and his tense interactions with Ben Foster — who himself ranges from “as little as possible” to “endearingly Shatnerian” — craft some genuine wit and spark in an otherwise leaden and shamelessly expository script. Their chemistry is far more natural than that of the plot-dictated romance between Travis Fimmel, whose rakishness and rogue spirit is diminished by his wildly inconsistent accent, and Paula Patton, whose already limited range is shackled by an ill-fitting and inconsistently applied set of orc half-tusks that make her lisp like a vampire mook from the first season of Buffy. Toby Kebbell admirably does what he can with Durotan, but any personality he may have tried to inject into the character often gets lost in the effects piled onto his voice. And that’s still more personality than either Daniel Wu or Dominic Cooper bring to the table, who never rise above their respective stereotypes of Chaotic Evil Wizard and Lawful Good King.
What little enjoyment the film offers probably lies in its faithfulness to the source material, even if that’s as much a flaw as it is a virtue. Fans of the Warcraft series will likely delight in seeing so many characters and locations brought to life, and Jones seems to be trying to cram in as many easter eggs as he possibly can. Of course, the rest of us may just end up confused by a film that is constantly and abruptly changing viewpoints and listing off names and places that we’re already expected to know about. Very little of the film is presented in any kind of context accessible to those outside the fandom, and that leads to any number of seemingly random, disconnected moments, including one involving an uncredited Academy Award-nominee who obviously owes somebody a favor. It’s impossible to become emotionally invested in the material on its own merits, and doing so in the first place seems an exercise in futility. There's two hours of build-up, but absolutely zero pay-off.
At one point, over the decade of development hell that Warcraft spent between green-light and release, Uwe Boll allegedly petitioned Blizzard for the director’s job. As Boll tells it, they flat-out rejected him because they didn’t want his reputation sullying their flagship franchise. But at least an Uwe Boll version would be an enjoyably awful spectacle of lowered expectations. Duncan Jones’ approach is generic and flat, a fact made all the more disappointing because of the promise Jones displayed on his previous films. This game is over before it’s barely even begun.
FBOTU Score: 3 out of 10 / D