VOD film review: Warcraft: The Beginning
Mark Harrison | On 13, Oct 2016
Director: Duncan Jones
Cast: Toby Kebbell, Paula Patton, Travis Fimmel, Dominic Cooper, Ben Foster
After a summer of largely lame-to-middling blockbuster fare, it’s not the least bit surprising that a film like Duncan Jones’ big screen adaptation of Blizzard’s Warcraft franchise stands out as one of the most distinctive big budget movies of the season, even with all of its flaws. Despite bombing in the US, it’s gone on to become the highest-grossing video game movie of all time worldwide, which is as much to do with its left-field approach to building a fantasy world as the brand’s popularity.
The film portrays the first contact between humans and orcs, as a warlock called Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) unites the orc clans and invades the peaceful realm of Azeroth through a magic portal. Orc chieftain Durotan (Toby Kebbell) initially joins this coalition, known as the Horde, to escape their dying realm, with his mate Draka (Anna Galvin) and their child Go’el.
The orcs are able to overpower most of the humans they meet through Gul’dan’s use of fel magic, which drains energy from the lifeforms around it. The men of Stormwind, led by military commander Lothar (Travis Fimmel) are flummoxed, turning to their half-orc half-human prisoner Garona (Paula Patton) and reclusive magical guardian Medivh (Ben Foster) to try and turn the tide. However, when Durotan realises that Azeroth will be drained by fel magic as his own realm was, he prepares to make a tentative alliance with the humans to protect his family and his people from Gul’dan.
If you’re already irretrievably lost from that synopsis, Warcraft might not be the film for you. On top of introducing lots of new concepts with various punctuated fantasy names to keep up with, the film suffers from the kind of incoherent editing that approaches Batman v. Superman levels and is paced like somebody tried to cram a whole season of Game of Thrones into two hours. Nobody who looks at this will be surprised to hear that it suffered the death of a thousand cuts at the hands of studio executives.
On the subject of studio interference, Jones admitted in a recent interview with Thrillist: “When you make a little change it doesn’t seem like a big deal. When you keep making those little changes, especially over three and a half years, suddenly you’re basically spending all of your time trying to work out how to patch up what has been messed around with.”
The end result is predictably messy, but Jones’ efforts do not go unnoticed and there’s clearly a great film in here somewhere. His previous films, Moon and Source Code, used their director’s affinity for genre storytelling in their favour and all of the best parts of Warcraft recall old-school fantasy movies of the 1980s. But characters such as Durotan and Garona are just as fleshed out as Sam Bell and Colter Stevens before them, even though these are characters augmented by special effects.
For better or worse, the cast are just as earnest and committed as their director. On the one hand, Kebbell’s orc chieftain is more than equal to his spectacular performance capture work in Dawn Of The Planet of the Apes and Patton brings enormous empathy to a conflicted warrior. On the other, Foster is parading his best Rickety Cricket impression as a troubled warlock and Fimmel feels interchangeable with just about any other actor of his stature. (You may well think he’s Taylor Kitsch until the credits.)
There’s definitely something askew in how the non-human characters are so much more expressive than the actual people here, except for maybe Dominic Cooper, who radiates nobility in a slightly overwhelmed role as a wise and pragmatic king. But the visual effects are truly the most impressive part of the film, from the performance-captured characters to the exciting battle scenes, via dazzling locations, such as the city of Stormwind. Warcraft is gorgeous to look at even when the editing and the storytelling fall down.
Right down to its subtitle of The Beginning, this is strangely like watching the underwhelming prequel that usually comes out a few years after a beloved blockbuster trilogy, rather than before. It’s like opening the Underworld franchise with Rise Of The Lycans. There’s a crushing inevitability to the way that things pan out in the third act, in which major developments come across as startlingly matter-of-fact on the way to a wide open ending. The film’s surprising box office success in China might just be enough to get the proposed sequels made, but, crucially, the anti-climactic finale doesn’t leave you with much of an appetite for more.
The result is a bizarrely personal film, considering the giant moving parts that are involved in making an ambitious fantasy blockbuster. Jones invests enough in the characters that you root for them – and for the film itself – even as it does a whole bunch of other things wrong. Warcraft is all over the shop but it’s certainly worth watching once, for the visuals if not the story – it’s just a shame that you’ll find yourself hammering any button to skip certain parts of this convoluted affair.