Warcraft, the film adaptation of the 1994 Blizzard Entertainment computer game that spawned several sequels (including the massive hit World of Warcraft), throws so many realms and characters at you in its first 15 minutes — Azeroth, Draenor, Gul’dan, Durotan — even George R.R. Martin would beg for mercy.
Here’s the thing, though: The moment you stop trying to figure out what’s what and who’s who, the movie becomes easy to follow, because all the fancy names and references are just window dressing on a plot so simple it could pass for a children’s book. Devoted Warcraft fans will take pleasure in seeing this dense, beloved universe brought to life via the most impressive motion-capture effects since Avatar. The orcs, a race of towering, mostly green-skinned brutes who sport gnarly tusks and wield huge war hammers, have such expressive eyes and faces you buy them as real creatures (the two main orcs are played by Toby Kebbell and Clancy Brown).
They’re so impressive, they highlight how bad the performances by their human co-stars are. Director Duncan Jones, who previously made the minimalist sci-fi drama Moon and the time-travel mind bender Source Code, seems to have been in over his head at the reins of this massive, $160 million production. He has devoted so much attention to the technical aspects of the film — some of the orcs sport bling and piercings on their tusks — that he didn’t notice how badly his human cast was flailing.
The people in Warcraft are all standard fantasy-genre types — the dutiful warrior (Travis Fimmel), the benevolent king (Dominic Cooper), the ornamental queen (Ruth Negga), the powerful wizard (Ben Foster), the studious apprentice (Ben Schnetzer) — without any distinguishing characteristics. The actors, who spent much of their time on the set acting opposite green screens, seem bored and more than a little bewildered (with the exception of Foster, whose odd, drunk performance is out of place and strangely comical, like Marlon Brando in The Island of Dr. Moreau).
Paula Patton plays the most intriguing character, a half-orc who fights on the side of the humans as they try to prevent the orcs from invading their world via a magical portal. But the script, co-written by Jones and Charles Leavitt, is filled with so much deadly dialogue no actor could save it: “In my entire life, I have never felt so much pain as I do now!” or “If love is what you need, you must be willing to travel to the ends of the earth to find it!” Glenn Close pops up in a cameo, mostly to deliver the ominous warning “No one can stand against the darkness … alone.” And so on.
Warcraft isn’t a flat-out disaster like Battlefield Earth or David Lynch’s Dune: The movie contains some impressive setpieces, such as a surprise forest ambush by the orcs, and the film wisely spends more time exploring the cultural and political ideologies of the monsters (who are not all evil) than it does hanging around the dull king and his court. The orcs have a great physicality to them — when they swing their giant hammers, you can feel their weight — and the climax piles so many cliffhangers on top of each other than you can’t resist a smile: The movie may not work, but it certainly tries hard. (I did wish Jones had thrown in a scene showing the orcs, with those gnarly teeth, eating dinner; their army is so big, they’d need an entire ranch of cattle to get through a single week).
Warcraft would be easy to relegate to the bargain bin of 1980s B-grade guilty-pleasure fantasy pictures such as Krull or Yor, the Hunter from the Future, except that the game’s popularity guarantees a healthy international box office haul (it has already grossed $46 million in China in one day alone), and the entire movie is structured as the opening chapter of a much longer saga. The story doesn’t end so much as stop, leaving enough plot threads dangling for at least two sequels. The Warcraft hardcore can rejoice. Everyone else can move along. There’s not much to see here.
Cast: Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, Toby Kebbell, Clancy Brown, Ben Schnetzer, Ruth Negga, Burkely Duffield.
Director: Duncan Jones.
Screenwriters: Duncan Jones, Charles Leavitt.
A Universal Pictures release. Running time: 123 minutes. Orc violence, gore. Playing at area theaters.