With a legacy stretching back over 20 years, and legions of fans through the ages, Warcraft was a prime candidate for turning into a film. But, given the scale of Blizzard’s universe, transposing that tale of Orcs and Humans to the silver screen was always going to be a challenge. The tapestry of characters and conflicts has taken time and care to weave together, and yet both seem lacking in Warcraft: The Beginning. The result is a strong visual portrayal of the world of Azeroth, let down by a mediocre screenplay, unconvincing acting, and heavy editing.
Directed by Duncan Jones [Moon, Source Code], Warcraft begins with a dying Draenor. The Orc clans have united together under the warlock Gul’Dan (played by Daniel Wu), who promises them salvation in a new world. But the cost is high; powering the Dark Portal requires the sacrifice of hundreds of captured Draenei, and will only sustain the gateway long enough for a small warband to break through. The remaining Orcs will have to wait until the portal can be reopened by Gul’Dan from the other side.
Those of you expecting the story to closely align with the original RTS video game or subsequent books and comics are likely to be disappointed, as the film is set in an alternate continuity. Dalaran is already a flying city, and King Llane has already ascended to the throne. But it’s the removal of the orcs drinking demon blood and becoming cursed by it that feels the most jarring change. Instead, they are gifted with Fel power, sometimes willingly, sometimes not, directly by Gul’dan.
Even so, the Orc side of the coin is mostly told well. Durotan (played by Tony Kebbell) comes across as the strong, honourable leader of the Frostwolf clan, ill-at-ease with the Fel powers that Gul’Dan wields. Aided by his wife Draka (Anna Galvin) and Orgrim (Robert Kazinsky), they set about piecing together a plan to free themselves from the warlock’s influence. But the internal conflict is evident, breaking with tradition and honour for a perceived greater good, and the unease with their decision is clear.
It’s at this point that Warcraft starts to deteriorate. As the conflict between the Orcs and Humans grows, so does the disparity between them. King Llane Wrynn (Dominic Cooper) is uncharismatic and unconvincing as ruler of Stormwind, whether it’s arguing strategy over a war map or requesting aid from Lordaeron and Kul Tiras. His dialogue and actions appear contrived right to the end, with little motivation or conviction behind them.
And then there’s Garona Halforcen (Paula Patton), the slave of Gul’dan. The character seems to have been stripped of any strength as an assassin, trained and condition from childhood. The role could have been so much more, but instead seems to have been squandered as a translator and love interest for the Humans. Her very survival in the Orc camp makes no sense, considering Gul’dan’s thirst for souls to feed the Dark Portal and Blackhand’s (Clancy Brown) unrelenting brutality.
In a similar way, Medivh (Ben Foster) is also a mixed bag. The interaction between him and Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) is subtle, particularly the way he drops the staff Atiesh in Khadgar’s path as if to test what he’ll do with it. But although there’s clear indication that Medivh is unwell, there’s no exploration of the internal conflict the Mage is facing, or the slowly corrupting influence of the Fel inside him.
Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmell) and Khadgar battle hard to pull the script back for the Human side, with the interplay between the war veteran and bumbling mage showing endearing development as the film progresses. But ultimately it’s not enough, as the screenplay continues to limp through the second half.
Visually, Warcraft is incredibly impressive. Whether it’s Stormwind, Dalaran, Ironforge or the Black Morass, each location has been brought to life by heavily referencing in-game representations; the throne room of Stormwind Keep and common room of Goldshire’s Lion’s Pride Inn are almost exact duplicates, for example. Other locations such as Kharazan have less direct inspiration, but the influence is still visible to those in the know.
Likewise, the special effects used are seamless. The interpretation of motion-captured performances for Durotan, Orgrim, Gul’dan and Drakka has worked incredibly well, particularly in capturing and reproducing facial expressions and emotion. The result is strong, believable performances that overshadow their human counterparts. Spell effects are also mostly authentic, with arcane sigils augmenting the usual bursts of plasmic light.
On the other hand, the musical score was far less inspired by the original games, in a move that felt vaguely disappointing. That’s not to say that Ramin Djawadi’s work was bad – far from it – but that it felt less like a romp through Azeroth and more like a generic fantasy romp as a result.
There are also times when I cheered. Yes, there’s a murloc, and it does glaarblargle. Moroes (Callum Keith Rennie) is featured as Medivh’s long-suffering butler, and the gryphon flights are an impressive spectacle. But while it’s all great candy, it lacks that meatier and more substantial base to hang from. There are also glimmers of real excellence from Draka, particularly in one scene near the end, but these are cancelled out by the utter cheesiness of what happens whenever Llane and Garona end up on screen together.
Ultimately, Warcraft isn’t a film about a single hero, or about the conflict of Orcs and Humans. Instead, it’s a story of inner conflict that both factions and individuals face against the Fel, and how that corrupting force taints and destroys everything it touches. Unfortunately, it’s a theme that the screenplay by Charles Leavitt and Duncan Jones never fully commits to, resulting in a mash of characters, locations and abrupt dialogue that never really capitalises on that strife. That may be the result of heavy editing by Paul Hirsch – rumours abound of 40 minutes being left on the cutting room floor – in order to hit that two-hour mark.
MMO veterans will get more or less out of Warcraft, depending on what faction they’re a fan of and how much they’re invested in the overall franchise. But, if the rumours are true, an extended Director’s Cut might end up being the better version. Other than that, this feels like the ideal Blu-ray to round off a guild gathering, with plenty of beer, pretzels, and free-flowing banter. As high-priced cinema-fare, those two hours are probably better spent gaming.