123 min., rated PG-13.
The mythological fantasy genre seems like the hardest one to crack sometimes, and scripted, acted movie adaptations of video games rarely work. An example of both, “Warcraft” is an egregiously tedious and perplexing experience. It should not be a necessity to have played Blizzard Entertainment’s massively multiplayer online role-playing game "World of Warcraft" to enjoy what plays out on screen, but for all of the skill director Duncan Jones, son of the late David Bowie, has shown in his previous smaller-scale sci-fi efforts (2009’s “Moon” and 2011’s “Source Code”), it’s rather disheartening to state that “Warcraft” can’t even deliver on its own merits as a summer blockbuster. Full of sound and fury, signifying you know what, it’s bound to alienate anyone who isn’t part of the prepackaged target audience. Bottom line, this is a tough sit.
From what can be understood, Draenor—the world of orcs—is dying. Orc warlock leader Gul’dan (performance-captured by Daniel Wu) uses dark magic called The Fel to create a portal into the realm of Azeroth and enslave all of the humans When decent orc chieftain Durotan (Toby Kebbell) discovers Gul’dan’s nefarious plans, he decides to unite with the humans. Meanwhile, in Azeroth’s kingdom of Stormwind, noble human commander Lothar (Travis Fimmel) and his brother-in-law, King Llane (Dominic Cooper), lead their people into war against the orcs. Adding to the confusion are more characters: there’s wizard guardian Medivh (Ben Foster) and his mage apprentice Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), and half-orc/half-human prisoner Garona (Paula Patton) who’s caught between the Alliance and Horde orc clans. Or something to that effect.
For a $160-million, CGI-loaded fantasy tentpole, “Warcraft” is lacking in fun, heart, stakes, imagination, and narrative momentum. The early scenes with Durotan and pregnant wife Draka (Anna Galvin) actually approach gravitas, but from there, the film plucks one into this world with little sense of, well, anything. Evidently, writer-director Duncan Jones and co-writer Charles Leavitt (2015’s “In the Heart of the Sea”) either have so much respect for the audience or just assumed that even the uninitiated would have been able to fill in the blanks of their ineffective world-building. (By the way, glossaries are not included at the screening.) Somehow, the story is simultaneously slender and needlessly dense and vaguely defined. The characters are mainly ciphers. The dialogue is bombastic. There’s really no clarity of time and no relationship to latch onto to save this movie’s life. To give credit where credit is due, the physical details of the hulking orcs are competently realized with motion-capture and a few of the fights between both clans are thunderously brutal. And, every so often, an action set-piece is directed with verve, too, before they all start to look the same, much like the sometimes garish, barely distinguishable orcs with bad underbites.
If the viewer cannot care less about what is happening on the screen before them, then the film is rendered an unfeeling empty shell, despite even the tiniest grace note or technical merit. That leaves all of the actors not voicing the orcs to play dress-up. Travis Fimmel makes for a rakish warrior hero but looks drunk and enervated, even when nothing of interest is learned about Lothar. Poor Paula Patton tries giving a genuine performance as green-skinned half-breed Garona, but the beautiful and talented performer is constantly upstaged by the plastic Halloween costume fangs jutting out of her mouth. Even for unintentional howlers, it’s a major distraction. No one else seems to make a good or bad enough impression, including the normally reliable Ben Foster, although Glenn Close (!!) does have the smarts to get in and get out with an uncredited role as a hooded mage named Alodi.
One can almost admire the ambition of filmmaker Duncan Jones working on a much larger canvas and adapting pre-existing material, much like when David Lynch took on "Dune." Just the same, that doesn’t make “Warcraft” any less of an inert, uninteresting blunder that drones on and on—123 minutes feel like 180—and still too often stops to catch its breath to remind us of how eye-rollingly silly it all is. With this digitalized studio-bred fiasco, he’s allowed one wipeout and will likely climb out of this fiery pit for his next project. “Warcraft” might be someone’s idea of awesomely geeky entertainment, but whatever the appeal is beats the hell out of me. If an auspicious filmmaker can’t even get the first installment right, then threatening the idea of turning this video game series into an entire franchise should be rethought and eternally buried. It would be worth living without.