Whatever intrigue the source contains is diluted by a desire to pander to an eager international demo.
WarcraftDirector: Duncan Jones
Cast: Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, Toby Kebbell
US date: 2016-06-10 (General release)
UK date: 2016-06-10 (General release)
Warcraft is destined to become a 2016 talking point, but not for the reasons you think. This first installment in a planned series, based on a hugely popular video game, is going to tank in America. The domestic box office will be an embarrassment, though director Duncan Jones won't be an instant casualty. It will be fans from the other parts of the world that send this cinematic dreg into the stratosphere, mandating sequels the send-off already anticipates while proving once and for all that it's the international film market that dictates what Hollywood makes, domestic audiences be damned.
It makes sense. There are, at most, 400 million possible fans of the franchise in the US. Add in a few hundred million more for the rest of the Americas and you've got a drop in the box office bucket. China is already making the movie a monster hit -- it's earned almost $100 million in two days. The rest of the continent will easily push it over into the billionaire's club, where it will join other washouts like Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and a couple of those terrible Transformers films. So when Warcraft 2 arrives in a few years, you'll know why. It's the same reason James Cameron is planning four more new Avatar films in the near future.
Warcraft can best be called Tolkien lite. It takes everything we loved about the Lord of the Rings films, funnels them through a fountain of fantasy folklore, and then confuses everything with the game's necessary recognitions. If you are a World of Warcraft fan, you'll find most of this fun and entertaining. You'll nod at recognizable references and wonder when the next piece of eye candy will be delivered. Sadly, there's a sameness to the look, something driven by the source itself. There's also a familiarity in both plot and personality that turns a potentially intriguing tentpole into a CGI-sore.
The main narrative thread is one of invasion and survival. Draenor is the homeworld of the Orc clans, and it's dying. It's leader, Gul'dan (Daniel Wu), promises a better life beyond the portals, but there's a problem. In order to teleport, the spirits of dead humans must be used... or something along those lines, it's all so convoluted. Anyway, the target is Azeroth, and even with some of the clan leaders reluctant to invade -- including Durotan (Toby Kebbell) and the half-human Garona (Paula Patton in some horrible fangs) -- they execute their plan.
Naturally, things don't go well, new allegiances are drawn up and alliances forged. This is especially true of Sir Anduin Lothar, who must serve the will of his King (Dominic Cooper) and decide how to battle this new foe, their "fel" magic, and the various confusing fight sequences that make up this movie's seemingly elephantine run time.
For those who recall the hour long siege at the end of Return of the King, the one where Peter Jackson and his magicians proved their ability to keep millions of computerized cogs whirring toward an Oscar winning end, get ready. Warcraft sees that manipulative mayhem and raises you a ridiculous amount of muddle. The plot may be obvious to someone whose spent the better part of the life in a basement going RPG on their keyboard, but for the casual fan, this is faux fantasy at its most mediocre. It's bombast without the basics of heart or humor. It's meant to mean something, but all it does is meander into a total mess.
Jones is really not at fault here. He's given the task of turning a game with multiple characters, multiple levels, multiple play possibilities, and just as many goals and make it into a single story, all while delivering the simplistic spectacle that drives butts into those theater seats. In that he succeeds. He doesn't do a particularly bad job with the film, and he does make the experience as immersive as possible. But just like that friend who insists upon telling you every detail of a complicated story in a dull monotone, this movie makes the epic seem stilted.
The actors are also forgiven -- mostly. Many are performing via motion capture or via a costly combination of physical and digital effects. The dialogue is derivative, with a whole lot of "quests" and "spells" being bandied about like they matter. In fact, with so much of the movie rendered on a motherboard, it's hard not to think of it as all animated. Avatar did something similar, but it succeeded because it was a novelty. It also had James Cameron calling the shots.
The biggest problem here is the source material. It's too dense, overwritten and under explained. It's like being dropped in the middle of a foreign land without a guidebook, a working knowledge of the language, or a concept of the customs. We are supposed to gradually get up to speed but nothing here resonates. Warcraft has all the wiz-bang visuals, however, and for that it will be generously rewarded.