The film is a baffling creation.
The greatest and most involving conflict in Warcraft is the attempt to figure out who, exactly, the film is for. Optioned a full decade ago and in proper development for four years, the adaptation of one of the biggest-selling computer games of all time finally arrives as its source material’s star wanes and its active user base plummets. In the sped-up timeframe of the internet, an adaptation of a 12-year-old game nearly qualifies Warcraft as a work of nostalgia, though its attempt to be passed off as a classic work of fantasy ignores its fundamentally niche appeal even at the height of popularity.
The film itself is a baffling creation. In a counter-move to typical fantasy plotting, the script lays out its conflict within minutes: orcs, led by evil shaman Gul’dan (Daniel Wu), travel from their ravaged world to a human planet, Azeroth, where they immediately begin pillaging, enslaving and scouring. Only when all the pieces are arranged at a sprint does it suddenly revert to the world-building that typifies these kinds of movies, and the resulting whiplash of pace throws the momentum off so violently that the movie never recovers. The core “humans vs. orcs” conflict is so simple that subsequent attempts to fill in the world of Azeroth come across as padding instead of detail. At times, the speed of the plot collides with the tedium of the window-dressing, producing the unintentional comedy of shots that careen into frame with vistas of some nondescript city with a chyron like “Stormwind” on the screen, as if these locations mean anything or have any geographic relation to the viewer. (In that respect, one has to feel sorry for all fantasy media made in the wake of “Game of Thrones,” which ingeniously put a map in its credits as if to prevent anyone else from ever again doing something so helpful without inviting calls of plagiarism.)
The human characters are an interchangeable assortment of beards, and frankly Universal could do everyone a huge favor by handing out some kind of pamphlet to all ticket-buyers with names and headshots to keep people straight. Placing any two men in the frame essentially becomes a high-budget rendition of those spot-the-difference games, though eventually one can tell apart, say, noble knight Lothar (Travis Fimmel) and Llane (Dominic Cooper), Lothar’s brother-in-law and king. The Guardian of Azeroth, Medivh (Ben Foster), wears a cloak to differentiate himself, while Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), a young mage, announces himself as a man apart from his peers by the simple fact that he shaves. In what may be the most complete replication of the video game experience, the characters feel like they were spat out of a RPG character designer, with assigned traits and strengths instead of a sense of personal history or discipline. The orcs, meanwhile, are a garishly-rendered lot, so anatomically preposterous that they look as if they spend their lives fighting the laws of physics—chests so wide you could park a car on them, and their hands are so noticeably huge that the mock-ups for these mitts appear to have been culled from Donald Trump’s dreams.
These characters are so lifeless that the efforts to graft emotional arcs onto them fail miserably. In the rush to keep erecting sets for the characters to hang around in and give the illusion of world depth, certain subplots are pathetically scattershot. Poor Lothar gets saddled with two: the forced moments with his son Callan (Burkely Duffield), which prefigure an obvious event, and a fleeting romance with Garona (Paula Patton, wearing an underbite so chintzy it resembles half a set of plastic vampire teeth), the half-human, half-orc. Even the main story suffers; the good-faith efforts of orc Durotan (Tony Kebbell) to overthrow Gul’dan are saddled with a clichéd sentimentality born of fatherhood, despite the fact that childrearing among the orcs is repeatedly defined as being tough love indeed. Not helping matters is the dialogue, which is written in excessively purple prose that tries to find “classical” ways to reword common phrases. Thus sentences like “Engage the guardian with all haste!” or imploring an inquisitive partner to “stop requesting.”
Duncan Jones, erstwhile maker of modestly clever, intermittently successful high-concept sci-fi films Moon and Source Code, sank years into the unenviable but hopefully profitable task of crafting this thoroughly anonymous picture. The young director does not have much of a visual trademark, and if he did it is certainly not on display here, with action filmed in wide panoramas of digitally animated men and monsters colliding irresolutely and one-on-one combat a series of snap pans and fast cuts. One shot, of bookshelves floating in the air in the Medivh’s tower, almost resembles a similar shot of a library in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but Spielberg has the casual mastery of a true visionary, and he can imbibe even a throwaway shot with character context and pleasing detail. Jones includes it simply to communicate the vastness of Medivh’s intellect. It’s functional, a term that could define all of Warcraft were it not such a baffling establishment of an unpleasant world.