Review: Brilliant Effects Can't Save Duncan Jones' 'Warcraft' From Familiar Fantasy Doldrums

Epic in scale, but overly-familiar in shape, Legendary Pictures’ “Warcraft,” is so easily identifiable it begs the question: will fantasy films ever break free from the ruling influence of “The Lord of the Rings“? Genres typically proliferate in directions far beyond their seminal works; sci-fi films like “Metropolis,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” or “Star Wars” all have their own vision. Yet the high fantasy fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien, which soared to popularity in the 1960s, still retains a tight hold on most sword-and-sorcery imaginations. “Warcraft” may be a loose adaptation of video games with sci-fi leanings, which theoretically should break it out of the mold, but its collision of men and orcs, with a few dwarves and elves in the mix, ultimately feels like yet another disciple of Tolkien’s fantasy commandments.

READ MORE: Watch: New International Trailer For ‘Warcraft’ Unleashes An Epic Fantasy Battle

Impressive and pedestrian in equal measure, “Warcraft” goes to great expense to translate Blizzard Entertainment‘s sprawling video game fantasy environments to the big screen. Ironically, it is most successful at bringing more far-fetched ideas like Orcs and magic to life than it is regular people. Human characters are thin and plastic, leaving most of the story’s big emotional beats to fall flat. Driven by the directorial hand of Duncan Jones (“Moon,” “Source Code“), an avowed fan of the games, “Warcraft” has its own distinct vibe at times, but the struggle of appearing broad enough for general audiences and deep enough for hardcore fans results in a stalemate wherein neither demands are satisfied.

Warcraft 14Blizzard’s game world has been detailed in dozens of releases, and elements from the first game, “Warcraft: Orcs and Humans,” form the spine of the film’s scenario, while inspiration from other installments fill out a fairly contained story. However, in streamlining the plethora of games down to feature-film size, Jones and writers Charles Leavitt and Chris Metzen end up inadvertently crafting a nearly generic tale.

With their homeland of Draenor having been plundered into dust, a race of warrior Orcs harness dark magic power to open a gate to Azeroth, a human-inhabited world they can despoil at their leisure. Not every Orc is given to unthinking violence, however. Durotan (Toby Kebbell), leader of the light-skinned Orc clan, is skeptical of blind commitment to this course of action. After all, their last world was stripped bare. Will the horde learn from its mistakes or just march on once again repeat past ravages in their new home?

Warcraft 12In terms of VFX, “Warcraft” is largely a triumph and Industrial Light & Magic‘s work on the Orc horde is the film’s chief asset, coming off more convincing than their human counterparts. The massive characters, scarred and wrapped in straps of leather and spiky armor, with great tusks thrust from their lower jaws, pass inspection even in lingering close-up. Kinetic battles do not fail them either; in the first skirmish especially, the Orcs are imposingly dangerous. And the mo-cap actors who play the primary characters are barely detectible in each visage. Daniel Wu, playing the dark shaman Gul’dan who leads the Orcs’ aggressive migration, is so perfectly submerged in the character’s digital costume he’s completely unrecognizable. Even when an actor does appear more obvious, the sheath of pixels is utterly transformative.

READ MORE: Watch: Warriors, Orcs & Monsters Face Off In 2 Epic TV Spots For Duncan Jones’ ‘Warcraft’ Featuring New Footage

The human forces however, fare far worse than their green-skinned antagonists both emotionally and visually. Led by a stiff Dominic Cooper as King Wrynn and represented primarily by the knight Lothar (Travis Fimmel, carrying his first major lead role to decent results), their accoutrements are so overly polished they appear phony and cheap. The humans’ rote, overriding guideline is Stop The Orcs, but neither the introduction of an old mage, Medivh (Ben Foster), who has his own agenda, or young magic-user Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), helps rejuvenate the narrative.

Warcraft 13Jones and cinematographer Simon Duggan frequently employ a ground-level camera that recalls the recent work of Emmanuel Lubezki with cosmic and occasionally gorgeous flourishes. However, the application of style is inconsistent. Worse, the rhythm of movement from scene to scene is strange and awkward. ”Warcraft” always seems like it might be just about to find its footing, a feeling that never resolves itself, even two hours in. As the action flits from one location to another, “Warcraft” struggles to establish a sense of place, contributing to the impression that Azeroth is a patchwork quilt of rote fantasy stage settings.

Ruth Negga stands out, in a far-too brief role as the Queen, but most major characters are distinctly chiseled out of stony fantasy conventions. Caught between warring forces is human/Orc half-breed Garona (Paula Patton), an outcast from both factions. Her conflict becomes the film’s most captivating and emotional by far, yet Patton has the unenviable task of playing the role through a distracting set of little tusks. She receives no shower of ILM‘s mo-cap fairy dust, but instead, just a spray of green skin paint. Garona may have the best arc in the film, but she rarely feels as if she belongs in the world — a cruel irony for the outsider, and a further example of why “Warcraft” fails to connect.

Warcraft 11Even in a film culture accustomed to the nerdy, “Warcraft” is the most hard-core deep geek effort since Disney‘s “Dragonslayer.” That’s to the film’s credit; Duncan Jones has crafted a movie that has the weird charm of a rambling Sunday-night game of Dungeons and Dragons, flipping between Orc camps and human cities. However, the problem isn’t the inaccessibility of any one element or combination thereof, it’s that “Warcraft” — with one eye clearly wandering off to the horizon of “what’s next?” — loses track of character and pacing fundamentals as it strains to set up enough concepts and characters for sequels. “Warcraft” may provide grand, thunderous spectacle as it transforms human actors into hulking Orcs, but when trying to perform the alchemy of transmuting genre archetypes into characters with soul, the magic fizzles out. [C]