Blizzard’s fantasy franchise comprising video games and novels finally makes its leap to the big screen. Sir Anduin Lothar (Fimmel), the military commander of the Stormwind Kingdom in Azeroth, faces an unprecedented threat: Gul’dan (Wu), a powerful orc warlock, is leading the orc hordes from their dying homeworld of Draenor into Azeroth. Garona (Patton), a half-orc, half-human woman enslaved by Gul’dan, must decide where her loyalties lie. The noble orc chieftain Durotan (Kebbell), whose mate Draka (Galvin) is pregnant with their first child, does not see the merit in Gul’dan’s attack. At the behest of Stormwind’s King Llane Wrynn (Cooper), Lothar must defend Azeroth from the invaders. Together with young mage Khadgar (Schnetzer), Lothar seeks out the reclusive sorcerer Medivh (Foster), the Guardian of Tirisfal. They must repel Gul’dan’s evil magic, known as the Fel, as the seeds of an ages-long conflict are sown.
Director Duncan Jones, who co-wrote the screenplay with Charles Leavitt, weathered an arduous production process and is himself an ardent fan of the Warcraft franchise. The disparity in the reaction the film has received from critics and fans indicates that this does appeal to those already familiar with the source material and who are excited to see the characters and locations come to life in cinematic form, but that those coming in cold will likely be alienated. This is very much a generic high fantasy tale, and there are so many characters introduced from the get-go that it’s easy to get them mixed up. The straight-face earnestness in the approach is a double-edged sword: on one hand, the filmmakers demonstrate a belief in the world they are building, but on the other, there’s an impenetrable rigidity to it all. Jones ploughs dutifully through the plot, but audiences aren’t given a chance to acclimatise to the world and the characters; the story itself is simple in nature but convoluted in execution.
Visually, this is an achievement, if not as earth-shattering as some might have hoped. The visual effects work, handled by Industrial Light and Magic and other houses like Hybride and Rodeo FX, is superb throughout. Visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer was an Oscar winner for Life of Pi, and one can tell that great care has been put into realising the digitally-created characters and environments. The props were crafted by Weta Workshop, and everything from the suits of armour to the swords to King Llane’s helmet abounds with pleasing detail. It’s a shame then that while perfectly acceptable, none of the designs really set Warcraft apart from its high-fantasy ilk.
After boarding the project, Jones set about re-writing the script so that it wasn’t built around the hoary trope of “all the humans are good guys and all the monsters are bad guys”. Fimmel, best known as Ragnar Lothbrok on the TV series Vikings, is a serviceable heroic military commander. Lothar’s relationship with his son Callan (Burkely Duffield) is a key component of the character’s arc, but because it has to make room for everything else, that is severely underdeveloped. Patton exudes confidence and retains a degree of elegance while playing a feral half-breed; Garona ended up being the character this reviewer gravitated to the most. Foster lacks the other-worldly mystique that Medivh should have, while Schnetzer is a fine sidekick to Fimmel.
In addition to play the orc chieftain Grommash Hellscream, Terry Notary was also the movement coach for the actors play the orcs. Notary’s credits include Avatar and Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The orcs are brutish by nature, and the gentleness with which Durotan holds his new-born son does lend the character more shades beyond that of a fierce warrior. Cooper looks the part of a dashing young king and Negga is plenty regal as Llane’s Queen-consort Lady Taria. Gul’dan is as one-dimensional as villains get: he’s little more than the snarling, hunchbacked wizard with an unquenchable thirst for power. We would offer Wu some praise, but it is hard to find him (or most of the other actors playing orcs, for that matter) in the character, since his voice has been treated in post-production and there’s no resemblance whatsoever. This reviewer feels Wu should be a much bigger star in Hollywood, so it was a bit of a disappointment knowing he’s in this movie but is hardly noticeable.
Warcraft is not a total wash, but given the build-up and the massive following the franchise has, it’s a shame that the film carries with it the vibe of going through the motions. Jones is obviously passionate about the property and has filmmaking talent to spare, but the cluttered narrative holds neophytes at bay. It’s hard to shake the feeling that one has been dropped in the deep end of the Warcraft lore pool, when this is meant to be an origin story that builds the world from the ground up. It’s more frustrating than genuinely aggravating that Warcraft stumbles so many times in its would-be epic journey.
Summary: For long-time fans of the franchise, this might be a dream come true, but it will be challenging for newbies to make head or tail of the overstuffed story, or differentiate a number of the characters.
RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars