Director Duncan Jones’ adaptation of Blizzard Entertainment’s epic game universe lays down a solid foundation for the franchise’s cinematic future.
WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS
It’s a surprise to no one when a video game adaptation does poorly, both critically and commercially. For decades, video game films have been given little love or care - instead, studios prefer simply to cash in on a mildly established name. With films like Mario Bros., Mortal Kombat: Annihilation and Resident Evil, video game franchises still need that one X-Men or Spider-Man type hit to show that a good video game film is possible. Well, Universal and Legendary Pictures’ Warcraft, based on the hugely popular Blizzard Entertainment Warcraft game franchise, may be that surprise game-adapted film that has a big enough budget and talented cast to please both audiences and critics. It stumbles here and there but ultimately lays down a solid foundation for future Warcraft films as well as sets the bar for other video game films in the future.
The film begins with the Orcs - a race of large, brutish and tribal humanoids - as they journey from their destroyed world into the world of Azeroth. The Orcs are led by a wizard, Gul’dan (Daniel Wu), hell bent on crossing into Azeroth and letting his Orc brothers and sisters cultivate the new world. Durotan (Toby Kebbell) is the more sensible Orc, who leads a strong clan and sees Gul’dan’s efforts are not for the betterment of the Orc race. Meanwhile, in Azeroth, the humans are trying to figure out why their troops are all mysteriously dying.
Don’t feel bad if you need a glossary to remember all the names, though there’s something to be admired in a film with such self-confidence that it presents so many characters and trusts the audience will follow along. It doesn’t slow down the pace of the film to pander or explain aspects of the world to the uninitiated. The story does an excellent job presenting scenarios the audience can relate to without getting lost in complicated lexicon. The first 5-10 minutes introduce Durotan and his journey to become a father. Other characters are introduced in similar fashion, which makes them more endearing for audiences unfamiliar with the World of Warcraft universe.
The human side has fewer relatable moments – instead, the audience is indulged in magic spells and schools of wizards. Travis Femmel plays the charismatic Anduin Lothar and is frequently accompanied by either King Llane Wrynn (Dominic Cooper), “The Guardian” Medivh (Ben Foster) or the mage dropout, Khadger (Ben Schnetzer). None of them really out-does the others and instead they all opt-in for this acting middle ground between The Hobbit and Game of Thrones. Eventually, a human-Orc hybrid appears named Garona (Paula Patton), easily the most vapid of the bunch as she can never decide whether to play a human or an Orc and so, decides on neither. Her make-up is distracting – she sports green skin that bears a striking resemblance to Zoe Saldana’s Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), as well as a really absurd under-bite with orc baby teeth jutting out. No other orc/human hybrids show up in the entire of the film, so her presence is that much more perplexing.
Director Duncan Jones, known for Moon (2009) and Source Code (2011), clearly cares about his source material. It is evident in the costume and set design. But his talent as a director shines when you consider the film’s excellent pacing. Scenes are the perfect length, each raising the stakes without obscuring or belaboring the narrative, though there may have been a bit too many jokes and moments of levity for a film depicting a constant state of war. For example, at the magic school, one of the characters asks the grandmaster wizard about a box held in a separate room. When the box starts to activate, neither character has any idea what’s happening. Funny, yes, but at the same time, it’s hard to believe a grandmaster wizard would know nothing about such a potentially dangerous box.
The special effects and Orc character CGI in Warcraft are incredible. You’ll start to wonder if the artists behind the animation are wizards themselves. When the camera gets in close, you’re able to see the individual pores on their skin, their facial lines and strands of hair. The sheer volume of different orcs, each with their own uniquely designed physical characteristics, truly brings these hulking behemoths to life. The same cannot be said for when the live-action human actors interact with CGI creatures, like a griffin. The visual disparity between them is so jarring that it immediately, in only for a brief moment, diverts your attention away from the film’s story. It makes you wish that the entire film was either CGI or practical effects and prosthetics. Jones does use unique film angles, provided by CGI, to pay homage to the Warcraft RTS root. But that’s the only similarity it has with respect to the video games. At least it isn’t as bizarre or useless as the DOOM First Person Shooter segment.
The pacing of Warcraft leads up to an epic climax of Orc on human battle - nothing to rival the fights in Lord of the Rings: Return of the King but still impressive in its own right. What isn’t impressive is the climax between the Orc, Blackhand and Lothar. The battle between the two holds weight and importance for Lothar, but is over just as quickly as it starts. It feels like a wasted opportunity to find out just how dangerous and savage the Orcs really are and how smart and cunning the humans can be. Instead, we are rushed into sequel bait and then the credits roll.
Warcraft quite possibly is the most ambitious video game film adaptation made to date. The scope and CGI are all top-notch, though some of the acting can fall a bit flat. If you accept and embrace all of the crazy fantasy aspects of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, then you will certainly enjoy Warcraft every bit the same.