It’s fair to say that there’s nothing in popular culture quite like ‘World of Warcraft’. An online interactive RPG populated by millions of participants, it acts as an alternate universe with its own metaphysical rules. You can be a warrior, an orc, a mage and countless other beings, not "playing" to win but simply existing and functioning like a living organism, interacting with the many other inhabitants of this enormous fantasy realm... or at least that’s what I’ve been able to work out. I’ll admit, I’ve never played (or even dared go near) the RPG, the scale of it just way too intimidating. That makes audiences like myself the great test for ‘Warcraft: The Beginning’, the long-gestating film adaptation directed by up-and-comer Duncan Jones ('Source Code', 'Moon'). How can something so idiosyncratic and specific satisfy both die-hard enthusiasts and total novices? Unfortunately, I suspect the answer might be that it does neither.
The kingdom of Azeroth is under siege from a Horde of orcs from the universe of Draenor, trying to find somewhere to live after their home world has died. They pillage and kidnap humans from their villages, collecting prisoners to sacrifice to the Fell, a magical force that will open up a portal between Azeroth and Draenor and bring the remaining orc Horde. Controlling the Fell is Gul’dan (Daniel Wo), an orc chieftain driven mad by the dark forces. Chieftain of the Frost Wolfclan Durotan (Toby Kebbell, 'Fantastic Four', 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes') suspects that Gul’dan and the Fell are the reason for their misfortune, and aims to make a pact between orcs and humans through Commander Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel, 'Vikings' series) and their half Orc/half human prisoner Garona (Paula Patton, 'Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol'), while Guardian mage Medivh (Ben Foster, 'Ain't Them Bodies Saints', 'The Mechanic') and young apprentice mage Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer, 'Pride', 'The Book Thief') search for a way to control the Fell and hold the Horde back.
The convoluted plot of ‘Warcraft’ is only one of many, many problems with the film. In fact, it’s hard to know where to really start. The foundations certainly aren’t that sturdy, beginning with a clichéd and deathly serious screenplay from Jones and Charles Leavitt. The world of ‘Warcraft’ is inherently ridiculous and surprisingly disingenuous, one where magic is an excuse and solution for everything. Tolkien, Rowling and Pullman understood that you can’t explain things away with some metaphysical magical force, but so much about the rules of this world boil down to magic that is either never explained or explained adequately. The tone is mostly stern-faced, which doesn’t help at all. There are flashes of lightness, but when characters are rattling off a bunch of silly words and concepts without even a twinkle in their eye, it’s hard to get emotionally involved. From a technical standpoint, there are moments of impressive work, with Jones handling the major set-pieces far better than the clunky and painful interpersonal relationships, but most of the film just seems derivative of much better films. ‘Warcraft’ spends a lot of time trying to be ‘The Lord of the Rings’, but neither the material nor the execution have the depth and complexity to come anywhere near it. The editing is frenetic and without rhythm, the cinematography is flashy but without focus, and the visual effects swing between impressive and cartoonish. The production design is absolutely ridiculous - and not in a good way - making the world of Azeroth far too clean and high fantasy without any texture or detail. There are also basically no women to speak of, apart from a few perfunctory wives and love interests, dull regardless of their muscle tone. Surprisingly, Ramin Djawadi’s score is quite good, even though it’s clearly been butchered by the shoddy editing. It has bounce, tension and dramatic flair, something the film itself is sorely lacking, and I suspect will be a much better listen when divorced from the film itself.
The convoluted plot of ‘Warcraft’ is only one of many, many problems with the film.
In terms of performances, the orcs fare a lot better, Toby Kebbell and Daniel Wo standing out for their clear and affecting characterisations. Gul’dan in particular is a terrific villain, and I found myself far more engaged when the orcs were on-screen than the humans. However, there’s pretty much nothing to say about the human performances other than they’re uniformly terrible. Travis Fimmel is abominable as Lothar, totally unfocused and physically combustible, with an accent that swings so wildly that it’s almost impossible to understand a word he says. Ben Schnetzer spends the entire film as affected as possible, his face a contortion of strong emotions, but as least the emotion reaches his face, while Fimmel just looks like he has a stomachache. Paula Patton tries her best, but the writers can’t decide whether Garona is an integral plot device or a love interest – regardless, Patton and Finmel have absolutely no chemistry. Dominic Cooper, often so dependable, looks bored out of his mind as King Llane, and Ben Foster’s brooding mage Medivh feels like a bad combination of a flamboyant Gandalf and Chris Angel Mind Freak. His preposterous costume is laughably ostentatious, an enormous cape covered in fluro-green feathers, making it even more impossible to take his oh-so-serious performance seriously in any way.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing about ‘Warcraft: The Beginning’ is that there’s probably a really good film in there somewhere. There were flashes that recalled the great 80s fantasy films like ‘Willow’ and ‘Legend’, and I suspect that if it had revelled in its own ridiculousness a bit more, it might have been a bit more fun. As it stands, the film is an absolute mess, unfocused and clichéd with flashes of something better drowned out by bad decisions and atrocious performances. It’s a great pity that Duncan Jones’ step into big budget filmmaking has been such an enormous misstep. ‘Warcraft’ positions itself as the first in a franchise, making some bold narrative decisions in its final act to clearly set up for the next chapter, but it’s too late to save it. There’s no question that this is definitely the end of the line for this franchise, and I suspect that even the most diehard fans will find this bloated would-be epic hard to love. I had hoped it would be the kind of film that’s so bad it’s good. Unfortunately, it’s just bad.