Under my name for this review I suppose I should write “not a gamer,” because that seems to make a big difference. My limited knowledge of the game “World of Warcraft” comes primarily from South Park, admittedly an unkind portrayal of the game’s lovers. I don’t hate video games, just don’t have gaming systems; I’m limited to one phone game and playing “Lego Marvel” at a friend’s house. The trailers looked bizarre when I first saw them, but the solid cast and director Duncan Jones made me think of giving it the benefit of the doubt. After all, I’ve heard “World of Warcraft” is one of the more story/character-focused video games, and there’s no reason we can’t make good movies from popular IPs (The Lego Movie worked).
But Warcraft really is a bad movie. I’m sure I watched this movie missing some vital narrative information (I had to run over some plot details with a friend before writing this), but I honestly can’t remember the last movie based on source material that felt as impenetrable to an outsider as this film does. Usually a movie based on something has an entry point (even if some details aren’t fleshed out for newbies) and really good ones can make you interested in seeking out the source. But Warcraft almost immediately made me feel like I missed something… that feeling you get when you aren’t sure if you walked into a movie two minutes late or ten minutes late. And yet, it never wet my appetite to fill in the gaps. Who are the orcs and where are they from… no idea. Where does Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) get his powers? No one says. Why are Durotan (Toby Kebbell) and Anduin (Travis Fimmel) the “leads” of this movie? That is the biggest mystery of all because they are never fun or engaging enough to connect to during the film.
My exposure to Travis Fimmel happens to be limited to Vikings and Maggie’s Plan, but I remember telling someone I really liked him in Maggie’s Plan because he had a nice, unassuming quality under a traditional masculinity. But in Warcraft, his interpretation of Anduin is strangely too modern, detached and cocky to make for a likable “hero” and feels off-putting. And considering Toby Kebbell’s track record with big blockbuster movies (Warcraft, Fantastic Four, Prince of Persia, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) it might be time for him to go back to smaller scale material where his quirky qualities as an actor are appreciated. Despite his strong voice and stoic brutishness on-screen, I never felt anything for his orc, Durotan.
And yet, we do get two entertaining performances by characters I wish this movie had actually been about. There’s Ben Foster’s wizard Medivh also called The Guardian and Paula Patton’s Garona (a part human/part orc former slave) brought to earth by a master, that allies with the humans during the Orc invasion from another realm (please don’t correct me if I got that wrong). Garona seems to have an actual character worth building a movie around and could’ve easily been an entry point for audiences into this fantasy world. A woman conflicted by two different races, she’s overcoming a lifetime of hardships and emerging as the heroine. Patton’s more than deserving of having a big movie to display her star worthy talents, and despite some truly terrible make-up effects, she manages to draw you in (not to mention having chemistry with Preacher stars Dominic Cooper and Ruth Negga, as the royals). But she’s not the lead, and when they force a romance with her and Fimmel the results are, well, odd. I’m not sure if it’s the CGI or make-up effects, script or simple lack of chemistry between the actors, but those scenes are so bad, people seemed to laugh at them in the theater.
Like Cooper (not as fun as he is in Dracula: Untold but still fun when he hams it up), Foster definitely seems to have the gravitas to pull off playing a badass wizard, almost like he’d thought of The Tempest’s Prospero and then added rock star swagger, which works because he appears so into all of it. I wouldn’t be surprised if Foster’s a big fan of the game because he is so committed to this total mess of a film. As fun as it is to see someone being that committed to nonsense, I don’t know what he’s doing on-screen most of the time. There are scenes that hint at lore from the game and I almost immediately understood his character’s twist (that red herring’s way too obvious), yet, the characters’ actions I never understood. Granted, I didn’t understand most of these characters’ motivations and behavior.
There’s little back story for any characters and with the exception of the main bad guy Gul’dan being bad because he sucks the life out of characters (which is pretty cool), the other characters’ behavior seems to be motivated just to set up the next set piece. I sat through this whole movie and still don’t know where everyone ended up and why. The movie is so over complicated by game mythology (which takes hours to learn through interactive play), and then Duncan Jones adds even more plot and contemporary themes about environmentalism, globalism, Catholicism and retelling the Moses story. He’s not slowly, subtly integrating these elements for the next movie (which they dare to set up), but as blunt statements which cause distractions and it’s too much.
Besides the “you need to know the game to like the movie” argument for this movie, the visuals are probably going to be the argument for this movie being worth seeking out. I would agree that the amount of detailed work put on-screen is impressive, but it still doesn’t work as an eye-popping feast. Most of these orcs don’t feel real or weighed down by flesh and bone, leaving viewers apathetic to their plight. One of the reasons you care about Patton’s character is because she is a human with make-up and not a human performance in motion capture that’s been coated with CGI. The background characters all seem to have the unnatural, repetitive character motions we are used to seeing in video games (one female “extra” is an especially distracting example). This is a movie which would have done better with practical effects not only to humanize the performances so we cared about what happened to characters on both sides, but because the entire thing’s so silly, a touch of 80’s fantasy movie nostalgia (like Never Ending Story or Labyrinth) would have fit perfectly. There’s big flying bird-horses and massive wolves, and yet the whole thing lacks a sense of whimsy.
This is Duncan Jones’ first big studio movie and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s his last. As a director of action he lacks an authoritative touch; the choreography’s sloppy, the editing lacks fluidity and the effects during the fights are strained. He clearly loves genre filmmaking but the toned down realism he brought to sci-fi is absent in this fantasy experiment. The bombastic, wastefulness on display here leaves you feeling detached from the movie rather than immersed in what should be a magical world. Sadly, the fact that the villains in this movie destroy the world by using too much magic seems like too perfect an analogy for what happened to Jones when he tries to put too much on the screen.