More noise than signal

Warcraft: The Beginning

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

“Based on the hit video game” is most commonly a dire warning when it comes to film, so I figured it’d be interesting to see if that remains the case when a hefty budget is thrown at it and more importantly, a director who’s previous work I’ve been rather fond of took the helm. I’ve no great experience with the game of late, having touched nary a second of the phenomenally popular World of Warcraft. I think I played a bit or Warcraft 3 back in the early 2000’s, and some of the recent card game Hearthstone, but that’s not helpful when talking about the lore of the world, if you will, so I’m essentially coming to the film as I’d assume the majority of the target audience would – essentially blind, maybe knowing the name, but little else.

So, we’re introduced to Duncan Jones’ CG-heavy take on the material as a warband of orcs chieftained by the necromancer Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) opens a portal from their dying home to the world of Azeroth, a currently peaceful high fantasy land of humans, dwarves, elves and anything else from The Lord of the Rings than Blizzard wanted to nick back in the day. In this film though, we’re only really concerned with the humans, headed by King Llane Wrynn (Dominic Cooper).

When word reaches him that villages are being pillaged and the villagers hauled off, he dispatches right hand man Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel) to findout what’s going on, and to raise the AWOL Guardian of the Realm Medivh (Ben Foster), a powerful magician. On the way Lothar stumbles across a rather less powerful but still pretty useful mage Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer).

There’s some discontent in the ranks of the orcs, however, as while their warchief and many of his minions are on-board the conquest trail, some notice that their home hadn’t been dying before this necromancy fiesta started, and that same corruption has followed them through to Azeroth. Almost as though they’re the baddies. In particular the Frostwolf Clan, headed by Durotan (Toby Kebbell), figures out he’d better contact the humans and ask for their help in overthrowing Gul’dan and restoring honour to the Orc clans.

Acting as a bridge between the human and orc protagonists is Garona Halforcen (Paula Patton) who is as her name implies, who agrees to help the humans. Can these alliances hold, and has the corruption of the fell magic Gul’dan wields affected any of those in Azeroth?

These are the questions that Jones hopes will sustain the mercifully restrained two hour narrative, leading up to the climactic battle between the humans and orcs. And, well, it just about does, as far as I’m concerned, but it’s a tough film to really go to bat for.

If you’ve paid any attention to the reviews, this has been almost universally buried, and I’m almost left wishing I could be overwhelmingly positive to provide some balance. However Warcraft doesn’t provide all that much excitement, so it’s difficult to translate that into a strong defence.

There’s a very strong and consistent aesthetic applied to the world, which makes the Orcs much more relatable and impressive than I’d have expected, but at the cost of it making the human’s world look a tiny bit weird. Not bad, exactly, but off-putting enough to start triggering whatever the uncanny valley analogue for buildings and such would be. It left me with the distinct impression that the CG stylistics were unsettled.

Narratively it’s no more than competent. It manages a somewhat rare trick of having a great many things going on, but not making much of it seem all that important, leading to a final battles that wasn’t all that engaging.

Performance-wise, the orcs seem to get more attention and characterisation than the humans do, which is nice, but it does rather leave Dominic Cooper in particular, but really all of the human cast rather spinning their wheels with under-developed characters, making the piece feel a little thin and flimsy.

While there’s a couple of barbed lines and lighter moments, for the most part everything in presented very seriously and straight-laced, and I’m left with the impression of it being very po-faced. There’s just not enough fun on display, which is perhaps the heart of my complaints with the film. It’s a more-or-less competent piece of filmmaking, but it’s no fun, and that’s really what I want from this.

So then, overall it’s resoundingly mediocre, which is still much better than the slew of negative reviews would imply, but it’s hard to recommend anyone, even fans of fantasy films, make much of an effort to see this. I’m heartened somewhat by its huge success in China, which should guarantee a sequel on that nation’s returns alone, not necessarily as vindication for the film but because there’s a good setting for stories in the World of Warcraft that I’d like to see better utilised, especially given that we’re hardly over-run with other fantasy film options.

Warcraft: The Beginning isn’t a great film, but it’s a reasonable base from which to build something great. I’ll look forward to that film, but in all likelihood I will entirely forget about this one.