A huge part of the appeal of World of Warcraft is the ability for gamers to role-play by inserting their chosen avatar into a world derived from Tolkien and other fantastical bits and bobs, altering the experience as they interact with fellow players. Warcraft, the movie, gives us no free will. We’re trapped in a familiar, yet confused narrative pieced together from various sources. The absurd names of people, beasts, and places may be (partially) unique, but the fanciful beats remain the same. Devotees of the game franchise may get some enjoyment out of inside nods, though the uninspired story, paper-thin characters, and general nonsense are more likely to induce nodding off.
The language of Warcraft is dense and the film wastes no time introducing characters it assumes we already know and zips around to kingdoms with ridiculous names like Ironforge and Stormwind. I guess they’re saving places like Horsegallop and Fireheat for the threatened sequel.
After we’re inundated with meaningless nouns, a rather simple story, made unnecessarily complicated, emerges. Having depleted the resources of their world, warmongering orcs use a magical portal to transport their army to the realm of Azeroth in hopes of conquering it. Their leader, warlock Gul’dan (Daniel Wu), is ruthless, while chieftain and new father Durotan (Toby Kebbell) thinks there’s a way to co-exist peacefully with the Azerothians. King Llane (Dominic Cooper) and warrior Lothar (Travis Fimmel) – not the one “of the Hill People,” lead the human side.
Orbiting around the sometimes political, mostly battle-driven conflict are more ciphers that include wizard Medivh (Ben Foster), young sorcerer Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), and half-breed orc Garona (Paula Patton), whose allegiances aren’t always clear. Who does what when doesn’t really matter, however, as all of the characters are mere chess pieces moved around to various fake sets to fight, talk gibberish, and be pawns of the plot.
Director and co-writer Duncan Jones has made smart sci-fi films at the small and mid-budget levels – Moon and Source Code, respectively, but his voice feels stymied by the crush of a studio blockbuster. Whether through executive meddling, an emphasis on technical details over gripping drama, or some other factors, Warcraft radiates a bland, by-committee quality that fails to provide an entry point into the overly-computer-generated world.
Jones is able to muster spots of excitement in well-staged action scenes that would be a lot better if there were any meaningful context or if they didn’t all feature humans swinging swords at washed-out-looking cartoon characters. The orcs are incredibly detailed with gigantic toned muscles, ornamental jewelry (even in their huge teeth), and intimidating weaponry, but however many pixels went into their creation we simply can’t buy them as being present with their human counterparts. The practical orc look isn’t much better, with Patton’s costume consisting of a coat of pea green paint, pointy ears, and a set of novelty store vampire fangs worn upside down.
Disconnects extend to the performances with Foster (over)acting like he’s in a Shakespearean melodrama, Fimmel swashbuckling around, Schnetzer earnestly navigating a Harry Potter-esque potboiler, and Patton seemingly as confused about her character as we are. Fimmel probably comes out the other end of the mess the best, proving he could be the hero in a much better epic.
Attempting to sort through the drivel of Warcraft is, for the uninitiated, a fool’s errand that becomes more grueling as the script tries harder and harder to cram affected exposition. The movie is permanently stuck in world-building mode, yet fails to create a memorable, or near-organic, setting. From an unclear first scene that could be a prologue or an epilogue, to an open (and arbitrary) ending, Warcraft is pretentious fantasy dreck.