Some people had hoped, after months of hype and the pedigree of director Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code), that Warcraft might break the long and storied Curse Of Bad Video Game Movies. I have some sad news for those people. Maybe video game adaptations were just never meant to be. Warcraft, which comes out June 16, is a whirlwind of CGI effects and snazzy costumes that never quite coalesces into a watchable film. Longtime fans of the series might get a kick out of seeing the likes of Medivh (Ben Foster) and Durotan (Tony Kebbell) played by Hollywood actors, but it's tough to get invested in a movie that feels so soulless. Warcraft has very few redeeming qualities. The performances are mediocre, the writing is full of clichés and the cinematography is confusing when it's trying to be clever. (Both the orcs and humans speak real-life English, but the movie attempts to persuade us, by means of a clumsy transition halfway through the film, that the orcs are actually speaking their own language. It's not very good.)
The fundamental flaw in Warcraft is the same flaw we find in most video game movies: It takes itself too seriously. These games are set in a world full of in-jokes and surreal humour, one that's inhabited by a race of giant panda bears because the developers at Blizzard really liked one of their own April Fool's jokes. Even when the Warcraft games get dark, and they do get dark, they have always been adept at having fun with their players. The film does no such thing. If only this movie had the charm of a Warcraft unit who's been clicked too many times.
In case you're curious: I've played through all three main Warcraft games and went on a WoW kick back in 2005. I was the guy at the screening who knew who Thrall was and who most certainly recognised that the creature who popped up for a second in that one swamp was a murloc. I could tell you the difference between a Death Knight and a Lich King and I have many fond memories of destroying fools with my Night Elf army. So I should be the ideal target audience for a movie like Warcraft, one that tries to turn the story of the First War between orcs and humans into a winter blockbuster.
Yet I just couldn't buy in. Maybe the premise was flawed from the start. Warcraft opens with a shot of the vicious orc Horde, all teeth and screams, as it introduces us to Durotan and his pregnant wife. In just a few minutes we're zipping through so many cities — Ironforge, Stormwind, Dalaran — that even for a Warcraft buff it might be tough to keep things straight. Rather than give some breathing room to Durotan and his human counterpart, Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), Warcraft insists on introducing character after character, none of them pleasant. There's Callan (Burkely Duffield), Lothar's plot device of a son. There's the bumbling mage Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), who is far more interesting in the games. There's the Guardian Medivh, whose motives and actions are never quite clear. There's a king, a queen, some knights. There are a bunch of orcs who get a lot of screen time that could've gone toward actual character development. There are too many characters, too many subplots and not nearly enough reasons to care about them all.
And then there's Garona (Paula Patton), whose fangs are so utterly silly that they often distract from her performance, which is just as ridiculous. Warcraft devotes many minutes to Garona: her enslavement at the hands of her own people; her snarling threats; her unconvincing romantic tryst with the main character. Her character, a half-orc, half-human* warrior who seems destined to bring peace to the two races, is poorly crafted and kind of a drag to watch. A stronger actress could have helped made Garona more compelling, but with so many factors working against her, even that might not have worked. She is unabashedly dull.
Even the nasty warlock Gul'dan (Daniel Wu), easily the most compelling character in the film, never quite lives up to his video game pedigree. He spends most of his time draining the souls out of his prisoners' bodies, which is fun to watch, but he never feels threatening. The stakes are never really there. Warcraft spends very little time trying to convince the audience why anyone should care that Gul'dan and his orcs are invading the world of humans, or why it even matters.
Rather than tapping into the goofy core that makes a game like World of Warcraft interesting, the Warcraft movie aims for grittiness, missing the mark quite a bit. It just doesn't work. The lore is too campy. This is a world where a mage's most popular spell transforms his enemies into sheep, yet Warcraft acts as if it's a green-screen version of Game of Thrones. At my theatre, the biggest laughs came not from the occasional bouts of slapstick comedy but from the miserable archmages of Dalaran, whose CGI-enhanced eyes look especially absurd when you're supposed to take them seriously.
I had hoped Warcraft would at a minimum be entertaining, but really, I've had more enjoyable two-hour sessions wiping on Molten Core. At least the armour looks good.