Many times, when a big-budget genre film generates a lot of negative reactions from critics, the director or producer will indignantly say something along the lines of, “We didn't make it for the critics; we made it for the fans.” In the case of Warcraft, that might actually be true. This is a film so devoted to reveling in the minutiae of its mythology that it barely even bothers to offer a friendly greeting to newcomers who may have no idea what it's going on about. To watch the film without being a World of Warcraft subscriber (I've never played – Dragon Age is my Video Game Fantasy Realm area of expertise) is like attempting to jump into an absurdly complicated tabletop game without reading the rules or like trying to jumping into Game of Thrones after missing the first few seasons. You get the general idea of what's going on while also recognizing that you have no idea what the hell is going on.
The trailers sold the film as a fairly simple story: orcs and humans don't get along with each other, so they fight. While that more or less describes the conflict at the heart of the tale, the story is anything but simple. There's a whole television season of plotting stuffed into this film's two-hour body, as one scene after another adds new pieces to the film's increasingly-complicated world and adds new entries to the film's vast glossary of Warcraft terms. Imagine watching a two-hour trailer for a fantasy video game while someone reads a bunch of that game's codex entries to you, and you have a pretty good idea of what the experience feels like.
When the film begins, orcs and humans don't even live in the same world. The orc world is called Draenor, but that world is dying and the orcs need to find an escape route. So, an old orc named Gul'dan (Daniel Wu, Into the Badlands) – who you know is evil because he just looks evil – harnesses a powerful-but-dangerous magical force known as “the fel” to create a portal to Azeroth, world of the humans (there are also elves and dwarves there, but they're mostly ignored because we've already got enough other stuff to deal with). However, a good-hearted orc named Durotan (an effectively soulful motion-capture turn from Toby Kebbell, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) – chieftain of the noble Frostwolf Clan – discovers that Gul'dan's use of the fel is what killed Draenor in the first place. If Gul'dan is permitted to keep doing his thing, Azeroth will eventually suffer the same fate.
Meanwhile, the humans are attempting to investigate the mysterious arrival of the orcs and determine whether they should be preparing themselves for battle. Our hero on this side of the story is Sir Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel, Vikings), a knight tasked with looking into the ever-increasing presence of fel magic. He receives assistance from Medivh (Ben Foster, 3:10 to Yuma), the legendary Guardian of Tirisfal. He's basically a super-mage who lives in an old library and occasionally takes healing baths in some magical blue fluid (the magic of this world is as complicated as everything else, but the basic idea is blue magic = good, green magic = horrible fel-stuff). Eventually, these folks stumble across Garona (Paula Patton, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol), a half-human/half-orc who will be placed at the center of a lot of conflicts between the humans and the orcs.
Naturally, Lothar and Durotan will eventually meet up and talk about the possibility of figuring out a path to peace, but there's so much... stuff... littered around that basic framework. We're asked to keep up with an abundance of conflicted relationships within each camp (both the humans and orcs have plenty of good guys, bad guys and on-the-fence-about-what-to-do-here guys), the story of a talented young mage named Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer, The Book Thief), tons of new revelations about fel magic, the history of Azeroth and Draenor and so much more. The film is absurdly overstuffed, and just when you think the film can't possibly contain another subplot, it finds one.
It's clear that director Duncan Jones – a talented filmmaker and a serious WoW player – is in love with the material. You can feel his affection for this world and its countless nerdy nuances in every single scene. However, it's not enough to mask the fact that this is a great big mess of a movie; an unwieldy, misshapen pile of fantasy film vomit that seems desperately in need of either a lot less plot or a lot more time (Jones' original cut of the film reportedly ran forty minutes longer, which might explain why so many scenes seem to end so awkwardly). In an industry that constantly takes complex things and waters them down for mass consumption, you have to give credit to Jones for trying to retain the overwhelming Muchness of his source material. However, so much of what he's doing here feels like a director attempting to fit a square peg in a round hole: it's hard to escape the sense that Warcraft would work better in almost any other medium. The film is a victim of its own ambition. A turtle trying to cross a road is a victim of its own ambition, too.
The film's clunkiness is accentuated by the hit-and-miss digital effects (there are moments that look terrific, and others that look like unfinished cutscenes), the mostly-generic visual design (one notable exception: the badass lion helmet Progressive Human King Dominic Cooper wears), the underdeveloped characters and the spotty performances (which range from “decent” to “when do we get paid, again?”). The big battle sequences are adequately-staged, but we're not exactly dealing with The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers here. Heck, we're not even dealing with The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies here. (Side note: if the Hobbit movies provide an example of a sweeping tale being given too much breathing room, this feels like an example of a story being given too little... use them both in your Fantasy Filmmaking 101 classroom).
Still, there are moments when you can almost see something resembling a good movie underneath all this mess. The high point is a thunderous one-on-one battle between two orcs: suddenly, the film's dramatic stakes snap into focus, the characters feel sharply defined and we're on the edge of our seats. Likewise, a scene in which one character is tragically separated from another by a magical force field generates a real emotional impact. There's a leaner, more character-driven version of this movie that could have been gripping, but it's swallowed up by this Alternate Universe Encyclopedia of a film.
What really hurts is that Jones is capable of so much better. Moon, his directorial debut, is one of the great science-fiction films of the 21st century. The clever, complex Source Code is also excellent. Both of those movies are unique visions that feel like the work of a distinctive cinematic voice. Warcraft – a project that consumed years of Jones' life – isn't entirely generic, but it does feel like a significant misapplication of his talents. There are all sorts of valid reasons for Jones to have taken the project: maybe he wanted a more substantial payday, maybe he wanted to direct a big studio film in the hopes that he would gain more leverage to make the kind of movies he wants to make, or maybe he genuinely loves this fictional world. That's all well and good, and as long as he's happy, that's all that really matters. However, as a movie buff, I sincerely hope this film turns out to be an anomaly in his career and not the start of a new path. Jones is a great filmmaker, but Warcraft masks that fact way too effectively.
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 123 minutes
Release Year: 2016