The act of describing Warcraft seems beyond that of a mere mortal critic. This is a film that requires an instruction manual going in—or perhaps years of training alongside solemn mages—simply to possess the superhuman endurance needed to enjoy it. It’s based on a series of video games, but the story resembles a conversation about The Lord of the Rings overheard at a loud bar: There are orcs, yes, and humans, and some magic too, but after that, things get very complicated and extremely forgettable. Warcraft is a well-meaning attempt to present a colossal fantasy world, largely unknown to moviegoers, using recognizable tropes and then instantly subverting them. It is also a calamitous failure.
It’s a particular shame given that Warcraft (a $160-million epic from Universal) is directed by Duncan Jones, a promising voice in genre filmmaking whose debut Moon was one of the best sci-fi films of the last decade. With Warcraft, he tackled a challenge Hollywood has continually struggled with—turning an uber-popular video game into something resembling a linear blockbuster narrative. Even the most audacious games can feel a little flatter onscreen simply because their plotting feels so familiar, and Warcraft suffers in that regard. It tries to offer a new angle on the high-fantasy storytelling viewers have seen onscreen for decades, but eventually it just descends into another weak action hodgepodge.
On to the plot, which flows as plentifully in Warcraft as the CGI. First, there are the orcs, a race of hulking warriors with boar tusks for teeth, who are possessed of a rather fearsome underbite and represented through sophisticated motion-capture technology. Their universe has been ravaged by some apocalypse, so a spiky green shaman called Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) has zapped open a portal for their warriors to run through, beginning a war with a world called Azeroth. This new place is home to humans, elves, dwarves, and plenty more, though we’re mainly introduced to the humans.
Jones, who co-wrote the script with Charles Leavitt, strives to present heroes and villains on both sides, which keeps Warcraft from being another tale of strapping white Euro-warriors taking on a dark horde of man-beasts. Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel) is a steadfast knight for the kingdom of Azeroth, backing up the noble King Llane (Dominic Cooper), while the lead orc Durotan (Tony Kebbell) is a new father and respected chieftain who’s suspicious of Gul’dan’s dark magic.
There’s also Garona (Paula Patton), a half-orc (her tusks are much less prominent) who straddles both sides of the conflict, and Medivh (Ben Foster), a mysterious human wizard who may or may not be up to no good. At the beginning of the film, Medivh is carving a giant golem statue in his tower—and you know what Chekhov said about introducing a golem in the first act. Medivh is constantly warning about “the fel,” a source of evil magic that seems to be driving the orc invasion, but like so much of Warcraft’s fantasy jargon, there’s absolutely no wider explanation of what it is or how it works—it’s just quickly name-checked as if the audience should understand what’s going on.
This happens over and over again: Characters spout whole monologues about the “Guardian of Tirisfal” or the rules of ancient orcish battle rituals, and things quickly become too muddled to even hope to keep track of. Warcraft doesn’t engage in much world-building; instead, it throws viewers into an already-constructed world expecting they’ll get the gist of it. And perhaps they would, if the film weren’t such a jarringly edited mess, overloaded with sub-Tolkien dialogue about sorcery and honor that consistently lands with a clunk.
Unfortunately, there’s no Han Solo here, no wiseacre for audiences to hold onto as someone with a remotely relatable personality. Though the movie is already quite silly—a wizard played by Ben Foster literally carves a 15-foot golem out of clay—there isn’t much deliberate comic relief, since everyone is as deadly serious as the fel magic they won’t shut up about. Anduin is a noble warrior whose motivation is winning the war and defending his king. Llane is a noble ruler whose motivation is protecting his people with honor. Durotan is a proud chieftain whose motivation is obeying the customs and traditions of his clan and keeping them safe.
There are supporting characters like Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), a wizard who abandoned his monk-like order, who would feel rebellious if Schnetzer weren’t so apple-cheeked and idealistic. Garona, the half-orc warrior caught between two races, should probably be the protagonist of the film, but she’s too often pushed to the side, advising one hero or the other, or trying to inspire a little romantic tension. Patton is a wonderful actress, but pulling off a good performance in such a dramatically inert environment is a task even a level-50 mage would struggle with.
Perhaps most frustratingly, over its two-hour running time, Warcraft only builds to more exposition: The promise of future tales to be told, of character arcs paying off in promised sequels, of yet another globe-conquering franchise Hollywood has vainly tried to conjure up to keep pace with all the superheroes. It’s likely the producers felt they had earned such arrogance with a huge budget, fancy CGI, and a well-known brand. And perhaps with a different story, or with a more clearly explained world, the film could have worked. Sadly, when the time came, Warcraft failed to cast its spell.