I truly believe that somebody - maybe sometime soon - will crack the Video Game Movie code. A film will one day come along that does for video game movies what the likes of Iron Man and (more recently) Captain America: Civil War have done for comic book movies.
Maybe Duncan Jones isn't that somebody, because Warcraft isn't that film.
Which is a shame. The director has a short-but-stellar track record with the sci-fi films Moon and Source Code, and his love for the source material of his latest movie is evident in every interview he's done. But Warcraft, while a visual feast, is little more than a dumb action blockbuster that has a bit of style but little substance.
While the online hit World of Warcraft is the video game that most people, including mainstream audiences, know and love the franchise for, the Warcraft movie actually goes back to the events of the 1994 strategy game classic (more specifically, the events are based on a Warcraft novel, The Last Guardian). It tells the story of the first battles between the humans of Azeroth and the war-minded orc race, who have fled their dying world and hope to make a new home in humanity's domain. The orcs aren't all of the same mind, though, and the dark magic being used by their leader, Gul'dan (Daniel Wu), threatens to destroy their race from the inside.
Surprisingly, the first instance of disbelief in the events on-screen don't come until the first humans are on screen. The story opens with the orc chieftain Durotan (Toby Kebbell) and his mate, who is pregnant with his child. There's nothing new or earth-shattering about their interactions, but impressive CG visuals make their relationship at least somewhat relatable (and oddly human). When we switch over to the human side of the conflict, though, we're met with clichéd lines, overdone fan service (small nods to the video games that only gamers will catch), actions that make little sense and often stilted acting.
Sometimes it feels as if, thanks to the overwhelming amount of CG present in Warcraft, many of the human actors had a hard time believing anything about the world they were supposed to inhabit. Good fantasy films exist (we live in a post-Lord of the Rings world, after all), but some of the line deliveries in Warcraft could have been lifted directly from a C-tier made-for-TV movie.
The plot is mostly simple (disappointingly so) and easy to follow, but there is also a problem of seemingly important concepts or characters being referenced with little to no explanation. Take the young mage Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), for example. He says he's part of the Kirin Tor, but that he's run away for, I don't know, reasons. Wait, what even is the Kirin Tor? What do they do? Why do they operate the way they do?
And then you've got the Guardian Medivh (Ben Foster), who's like, really good at magic, apparently? But nobody really goes into detail about why he's treated like Gandalf on steroids. If you haven't played World of Warcraft, there are a lot of holes that go unfilled.
You also get glimpses of dwarves and Blood Elves (though they're not referred to by name) here and there, but their appearances are few and far between. Which is odd, considering that the orc invasion of Azeroth presumably threatens them just as much as it threatens the humans, yet the humans have to do all the work to defend their homeland.
But maybe all you really need to know is that there are orcs, there are humans, and they're fighting. Because at the end of the day, that conflict actually leads to some stuff that's pretty enjoyable to watch on screen.
The very first magic spell effects feel a bit corny (and, well, "video game-y"), but as they escalate in scale, they help Warcraft become a joy to watch as a pure, dumb popcorn flick. When you've got big green orcs tossing horses at human soldiers, humans wielding large swords and shields covered in lion iconography, gryphons flying overhead and spells flying through the air, it's easy to get caught up in how cool it all looks. You probably won't leave the theater thinking that a character's death was particularly sad or that another character's motivations were particularly compelling (because none of them are), but you might remember how awesome that weird lightning barrier looked.
That alone could be enough to attract summer moviegoers, especially if they're among the millions of people who already have some attachment to the Warcraft franchise. There's something to going to the IMAX just to experience loud, dumb action, and that's amplified if you're able to say, "Dude, look, that's totally what the Dark Portal looks like in the game!"
Granted, there's also a problem that World of Warcraft fans specifically might have with the Warcraft movie: It's set long before the character and events that they're most familiar with. The famous orc warchief Thrall is only a baby. There's no tragic tale of Prince Arthas (who's a child at this point in time). There are no night elves, no Burning Crusade and so on.
But I guess you need something to tackle in sequels, right?
Directed by Duncan Jones. PG-13 (for extended sequences of intense fantasy violence). 123 minutes. In wide release.