The peaceful realm of Azeroth stands on the brink of war as it’s civilization faces a fearsome race of invaders: Orc warriors fleeing their dying home to colonize another. As a portal opens to connect the two worlds, one army faces destruction and the other faces extinction. From opposing sides, two heroes are set on a collision course that will decide the fate of their family, their people, and their home.
There will be two distinct groups of viewers – and, once suspects, reviewers – for Warcraft, splitting down the middle between those that have played the game, some since it’s debut twenty two years ago, and those that know nothing of Orcs and Azeroth but have been enticed into the theatre either out of interest or at the behest of an existing fan.
Director Duncan Jones’ previous two films, the sublime Moon and the highly underrated Source Code, gave no hint that his third film would be such a tentpole, big budget SFX-heavy, fantasy fueled outing but he’s a apparantly both a huge Warcraft fan and player of many years. And it sort of shows.
Diving headfirst into a story that’s already been playing for millennia, the uninitiated are likely to be completely discombobulated at first. With Orcs, Azeroths, many other species, portals and magic, coupled with the whole Uncanny Valley aspect of virtually every frame, be it mo-capped Orcs or real human beings, the first impression is a decidedly WTF? But just when you’re prepared to settle in for a remaining ninety minutes of confusion and technicolour headache it somehow, almost in spite of itself, starts to be fun.
It helps that it comes across as a sort of Game of Thrones on acid, seven kingdoms included. Orc/Human hybrid Garona resembles nothing less than Shrek’s online porn wish fulfillment and it all zips along at a pace that would leave you scratching your head were there time. Why is Orc hero Durotan (Toby Kebbell) taking his heavily pregnant wife through the portal just before she gives birth? Who exactly is Gul’dan, why and how did he get his power and why is he bad? Who cares? Fights! Flights! Magic! More characters!
For a first film in a (hoped for) franchise, the sense of nostalgia is oddly overwhelming. Whether by accident or design the film is littered with all that Game of Thrones imagery, Harry Potter DNA and visuals and bits and bobs from countless other fantasy films (including somewhat bizarrely, Flash Gordon). And the final twin battles are basically two thirds of the ending of Return of the Jedi, which is no bad thing. If you’re gonna reference/homage/steal, do so from the best. And it does sort of root the mayhem into something that feels as though it makes sense, even if it doesn’t.
Just don’t expect any character development or anything near the pathos and emotion Jones hopes to convey with the deaths of major characters, some of whom are on screen only in a minor capacity; we just aren’t given enough time to become invested or even interested in them. The film entire is both a middle chapter of a story you’ve missed the beginning to as well as a set up to those planned sequels and, as a result, you can’t help but feel rather cheated.
Does it all look spectacular? Of course it does, even if there is an obvious disconnect between the mo-capped Orcs and human performers. As an eye-searing, sugar-rushed couple of hours it’s perfectly acceptable and mostly fun but may also leave you feeling queasy and pummeled as you stagger back into the real world. Warcraft is not at all what one expected of Duncan Jones. What he does for his fourth film will be fascinating.