There’s a reason why the Warcraft franchise eventually became defined by the sequel World of Warcraft. It’s because Blizzard Entertainment, the makers of the game, had thoroughly crafted a story of incredible scale and proportions—an entire world built on generations of characters, conflicts, and big freaking weapons. The film version of Warcraft comes out this week and it both lives and dies on this concept. But mostly the latter.
Directed by Duncan Jones, Warcraft is a two-hour set-up to a movie I really want to see. It was undoubtedly crafted with passion, but it’s act one to a larger story. Its complexity and intricate asides show Jones and his team respect this franchise and want to do it justice. The problem is, the film seems so busy establishing the world of Warcraft (so to speak) that it never feels like it’s in the moment. In its obvious hopes to become a huge franchise, the film is constantly setting up things that very rarely pay off.
The end of Warcraft is one of those things that pays off. It gives us three truly great moments that show what the movie should have been: moments of shock, awe, and compassion, each earned by everything you’ve seen before it. The problem is, just as the movie finally hits a stride, it suddenly ends, leaving everything interesting dangling as a cliffhanger. The success of those moments then lingers as a very unfavorable juxtaposition with the rest of the film.
And the rest of Warcraft is devoted to explaining itself. Orcs live in a world that’s barren. One of their evil leaders, Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) creates a portal to the human world of Azeroth ostensibly so the Orcs can invade and make it their own. Once they get there, though, a few of the Orcs realize Gul’dan’s plan is self-serving and built on a dark, evil magic. Once the humans realize the danger, it becomes a race between humans and Orcs to save, or destroy, the world. It sounds relatively straight-forward, but that’s literally the bare bones of it: There’s more magic, multiple kingdoms, double crosses, factions, belief systems and more. There’s a ton going on.
The characters themselves are a problem too. One of the major facets the movie borrows from the game is having good and evil characters on both sides, with the result that there isn’t one real villain or one true hero. There are several of both. That may work in a game but, in a movie, you need someone to cheer for. Jones gives you plenty of options, but the film is juggling so many of them, it’s difficult to connect with any of them in particular. In fact, because there are so many main characters that the supporting ones, like the Orcs played by Robert Kazinsky and Clancy Brown, instantly get more interesting. At least they have a very clear, defined role in the story.
The look of Warcraft also takes some getting used to, mostly because it’s so incredibly heavy on effects. While fans have long complained that the film looks too fake, for the most part, the finished product works. Does it look fake? Sure, but it’s a video game movie, it was going to have some of that. The performance-capture Orcs are genuinely astounding, while the costumes and props are even cooler. Fortunately, one of the ancillary benefits of the effects is that they give you something to focus on as long stretches of the movie bombard you with mind-numbing exposition.
When the characters aren’t standing and talking (which they do, a lot) the action in the film does add some much-needed energy. If you are going to see Warcraft strictly for huge-scale action, you probably won’t be disappointed. However, while the battles start big and fun, they lack character. Eventually, because you can’t really care about them, they mostly degenerate to scenes of massive, but indistinct chaos.
Unexpectedly, there are even weirder things going on on the tangents of Warcraft. Much of the humor completely misses the mark or comes at inopportune times. A lot of the world-specific dialogue and descriptions don’t add much to a basic understanding of the story. And every once in a while there’s an odd aside or shot that very obviously is there to set up something in the future. The question is, will we ever see it?
Warcraft has some good moments but mostly it’s a huge disappointment. There’s no doubt it was made with the best intentions, but the translation into a digestible, single, satisfying story is simply not there. Maybe with another 30 minutes to bring closure to the twists at the end of the film things would’ve been different. Or maybe cutting 30 minutes out would’ve made it feel less stagnant. We’ll never know. What I do know is, if they do make a sequel, I’ll see it. I just won’t watch Warcraft again.