Okay, let’s get this out of the way first. Warcraft: The Beginning is not as bad as everyone says it is. So if you’re a fan who had originally planned to watch the movie but were hesitating because you were worried about the early reviews, then just start booking your tickets now. Because the film’s greatest sin thus far has been its general lack of marketing and promotion. It’s clear distributor Universal Pictures had no clue how to promote a film like Warcraft.
I mean, just look at this wildly reviled poster that was tweeted and eventually deleted by the official @WarcraftMovie account.
Yes. That’s an official promotional movie poster. Undoubtedly from the creative minds of a bunch of non-gamers thinking this is what will attract gamers to watch a movie. But what’s even more disappointing about this marketing direction is that the Warcraft itself wants to be much more than just a video game movie, much more than a summer popcorn flick.
And unfortunately, what sets Warcraft apart also makes it stumble.
Warcraft is an extremely faithful adaptation of the vast lore of the 20-year-old franchise, and chronicles the events of the First War between humans and orcs in Azeroth. The special effects are extraordinary, and one can easily get lost in the vast world. We’ve clearly reached a point in history where CGI has you almost forgetting that none of this is real, and it’s a fantastic feeling to be so immersed in the various settings, especially the Dark Portal. Much more impressive are the orcs, direwolves and other creatures who are portrayed almost exactly as they have been in the game franchise. It’s a very impressive feat, to be sure.
But CGI can only get you so far these days, and CGI without a cohesive plot (as I found out in The Jungle Book) is always a disappointment. So how did Warcraft‘s plot fare? Well, it’s a pretty simple one.
Draenor, the orc homeworld is dying, so Gul’dan (Daniel Wu), an orcish warlock leads a contingent of orcs, including Durotan (Toby Kebbell), chief of the Frostwolf clan, and Garona Halforcen (Paula Patton), a slave, through the Dark Portal. The Portal leads to Azeroth, which the orcs hope to conquer and settle in. Responding to the initial orc raids of Azeroth is Sir Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), whose path crosses with the young mage Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) investigating the strange corrupting power behind the orcs, known as the Fel. Together, they consult Medivh (Ben Foster), the Guardian of Tirisfal, on how to respond to the orc invasion.
Did I say simple? I meant simple for those of us already versed in the Warcraft mythos. Trying to adapt that rich high fantasy lore into a 2-hour movie would have been an uphill task even for the best of storytellers, and Warcraft should both be lauded and criticised for the attempt.
Lauded because this should be an absolute treat for fans of the franchise, especially those who have enjoyed the storytelling work of Chris Metzen, Warcraft’s main world-builder over the past 20 years. Metzen’s involvement in Warcraft has ensured that any lore differences between the movie and the source material is minimal, such as simplifying the corrupting power to a single name – “Fel”, rather than delve deeper into the whole Blood of Mannoroth storyline of the games.
But if I’ve lost you thus far, then unfortunately there’s a high chance the movie will lose you too. When Warcraft isn’t taking your breath away with some amazing scenery and action sequences, it suffers both from being packed with lore without any explanation or detail, while in other places relying on overwrought exposition to establish lore that is necessary for the story. As a result, a fair bit of dialogue feels forced, unneccesary and tedious. In addition, because there is no time for the movie really to breathe, a lot of minor storylines come across as unnecessary and distracting, and feel like they were either left in for the fans or to set up sequels. As a result, the general viewer may feel compelled to gloss over much of the detail and just enjoy the visuals.
Despite his limited filmography, we know Warcraft director and co-writer Duncan Jones to be a masterful craftsman based on his previous two movies. In our review of his second movie Source Code, we lauded him for his sense of economy in film. Unfortunately what has worked in his previous films seems to prove a stumbling block as he takes on his first big budget movie. Despite setting itself up well as a roaring high fantasy epic, Warcraft is often short on emotional payoff. It’s almost as if Jones wants to avoid the obvious comparisons to Lord of the Rings, but is unable to make Warcraft a suitable alternative.
The cast is extremely likeable, and in a strange twist of events, the orcs are actually more relatable than the humans, in spite of the extensive use of motion-capture CGI. The breakout star here has to be Daniel Wu as the orc warlock Gul’dan. Even though he’s clearly evil and malevolent, Wu also manages to infuse Gul’dan with the gravitas of one who leads not just by fear but by charisma. Kudos must also be given to Paula Patton, who plays half-orc Garona, and Ruth Negga, who plays Lady Taria, the wife of the King and his trusted advisor. These two actresses commandeered each scene they were in, adding a much needed presence to a largely male cast.
I would definitely recommend viewing Warcraft in 3D to truly get the most out of the experience, but of course, if you don’t feel like paying a premium for what is a good but not great movie.