MOVIE REVIEW: Warcraft
"WARCRAFT"-- 1 STAR
Most computer or console video games open with introductory vignettes or trailers are called "cinematics" that offer a hint of background before you press "START" and hop into their big, sprawling, and open world. The best ones today can carry movie-level craftsmanship. Just ask the director of "Deadpool" about his work history. At best, those cinematics give you 5-10 minutes of narrative stage-setting before you immerse yourself in mashing buttons and getting down to business. The summer blockbuster "Warcraft" is essentially an attempt at making a full-length feature film that plays like one of those cinematics. That approach, conducted by director and co-writer Duncan Jones, does not work in the slightest, no matter how flashy it is dressed up.
Let the gibberish (and the parade of false red squiggles of potential spelling errors) begin. The orcs of the realm of Draenor are besieged by world that is dying around them. The powerful magic-wielding green orc Gul'dan (Daniel Wu of AMC's "Into the Badlands") has merged the orc clans into an army called The Horde. Among them is the red orc Durotan (Toby Kebbell of "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"), a noble chieftain of the Frostwolf clan and his pregnant wife. Powered by what is called the Fel, Gul'dan can drain life energy from organisms around him to drive his magic, which includes opening a mystical portal to a new and fertile world on the other side, namely the human-ruled world of Azeroth.
King Llane Wrynn (Dominic Cooper) of the Stormwind Kingdom is the most respected ruler of Azeroth, joined by his queen-consort Lady Taria (Ruth Negga). His trusted military commander, the knight Sir Anduin Lothar ("Vikings" star Travis Fimmel), encounters a young mage named Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer of "The Book Thief") that has tracked the negative presence of the Fel energy from recently raided villages. To gain insight and an advantage against the orcs, King Llane calls upon the powerful archmage Medivh (professional movie creeper Ben Foster), the Guardian of Tirisfal, who rescues them from an orc ambush.
After this first skirmish, a few catalysts come to the forefront and change the dynamic. The captured half-human/half-orc slave Garona (Paula Patton) is rescued and agrees to help the forces of Stormwind. Within the ranks of the orcs, Durotan learns the reason worlds are dying around them is the decaying power of the Fel magic wielded by Gul'dan and he too defects to join King Llane and Sir Anduin. Before the inevitale knock-down-drag-out battle royale ensues, bushels of unintelligible exposition fill the bulk of "Warcraft." Enjoy deciphering talks of mana pools, demonic possession, the presence of boomsticks, and feeble attempts at creating codes and honor between both warring factions.
All of this messy, weird, and humorless exposition is thinner than helium and a waste of time and talent, including Duncan Jones ("Source Code," "Moon") in the director's chair. Outside of a cinder of spark from Toby Kibbel's Durotan, no one in "Warcraft" shows any character magnetism for audience investment. Little reason is presented to like, root, or care at any level. Connection has to come from more than cool looks and cool powers. It needs actions that transcend words and reinforce the destinies supposedly being forged. The blandness is contagious.
Travis Fimmel's acting depth starts and ends at his repeated ability to drop a pregnant pause after hearing a line directed towards his character, tilt his head in a cocky "oh really?" pose like he's a poor man's Dwayne Johnson (eyebrow and all), and then finally give a pointless and thin reply. That's a runway model, not a comprehensive protagonist. Sorry to begin the comparisons, but you will be longing for anyone close to Viggo Mortensen, where coiled intensity met fervent dedication perfectly. Dominic Cooper offers little help and Paula Patton is entirely out of her element. Any character down the pecking order after that is as forgettable as the pronunciation of their otherworldly name.
To its credit, "Warcraft" looks the part of a summer blockbuster. The immense visual effects and performance capture character creations are very impressive at times. The film has a 3D pop that will play well on the big screen. Even then, a movie this loud (pushed by an unmemorable Ramin Djawadi score) shouldn't be this boring. Showy visual splendor can only go so far. Anyone can take a product (say a Kia Sephia, for example) and dress it up with fancy vocabulary and fake style. Underneath, it's still crap.
Here's the worst part of what "Warcraft" tries to execute. With its riffs on exotic worlds, magic, big battles, and monstrous creatures, it fashions itself to be high fantasy and epic spectacle right there with "The Lord of the Rings" and "Star Wars." Universal Pictures thinks it is sitting on a crossover franchise that will sell merchandise and recruit new gamers by the millions. Child, please! You cannot make the bizarre endearing without substance behind it. To be a weighty and impressive piece of high fantasy, a story or film such as this has to exude an aura of importance. That's character building and mythology. That's a foothold into something with coherent gravitas. That's tangible peril and an infused purpose. None of that is present in the portending and pondering happening here between bland characters and weak ideas.
With that gravitas in mind, "Warcraft" was doomed from the start for the same reasons films based "Saturday Night Live" characters rarely work. You cannot easily extend a definitive narrative from something that was never meant to have one, or at least not a very deep one. The rabidly popular "World of Warcraft" is a MMORPG (massively multi-player online role-playing game). Translation, gameplay there is open-ended and never-ending. Nothing binds it past that cinematic introduction that sends you off skipping with your catchy character name, starter weapons, and first-level spells. "Coneheads" and "The Ladies Man" should have stayed skits. "Warcraft" should have stayed a game. They both play better in smaller forms.
LESSON #1: SOMETHING ALWAYS GOES SOUTH WHEN MAGIC IS INVOLVED-- Tell me something. Have you ever seen one film with a magical element, high fantasy or otherwise, where everything actually works as intended and nothing is compromised, good or bad? Yeah, me neither.
LESSON #2: SHOOT THE MAGE FIRST-- Speaking of magic, the trope of this lesson is easily within the top five of the unofficial RPG battle plan rule book. The guy or gal throwing down the spells is always the most powerful and dangerous player on the board. Incapacitate that superstar first or you're going to get hosed. Does anyone in "Warcraft" try this? No, that would be too logical and end the movie in 20 minutes.