Directed by Duncan Jones
Opens June 10
Science fiction and fantasy have often been lumped together, even conflated, especially in the movies. The movie Warcraft, based on the popular video game series, may be most useful as an illustration of how little sense that makes. Its director and cowriter, Duncan Jones, made two very good science fiction movies: Moon, with Sam Rockwell, and Source Code, with Jake Gyllenhaal. They both have elements of the fantastic, yet Warcraft, with its creatures, dark magic, and portals to other worlds, requires a whole other skill set that it appears Jones may not possess, at least not fully.
He gets the lugubrious sincerity right, that’s for sure. Jones’s earlier films were both predicated on aspects of solitude. In Moon, Rockwell mans a lonely moon base, with only a robot (and, eventually literally, himself) to keep him company. In Source Code, Gyllenhaal is on sort of a virtual-reality-time-travel mission that repeats itself, with his actions the only source of variation. Warcraft is an ensemble picture and it groans under its own weight almost immediately. On one end of a trans-world portal are a race of warlike orcs, led by a nasty-looking wizard-y orc with an apparently quite convincing command of the Fel, which is a kind of black magic that is mostly green (as are some, but not all, of the orcs). Having burned through the orcs’ homeworld resources, he harvests souls to open up a portal to another world and send some of his best warriors through. They will invade and capture enough humans to be sacrificed so they can, uh, open the portal again, but for longer this time, so all of the orcs can come through. So yes, a lot of Warcraft‘s story is about opening a portal so that the same portal can be re-opened again later. In response, the humans arrange various meetings at various locations to discuss and re-discuss how to handle this attack.
These redundancies are commonplace in the world of Warcraft, right down to the dialogue, which repeats a few key words (Clan! Chieftain! Orc! Hordes! Fel!) incessantly. It’s not that the movie’s roots in gaming show here (although: more on that in a moment) so much as gaming’s roots in boardroom meetings; this is a movie full of buzzwords, and it’s largely about how meetings beget more meetings. As in any organization, some of the orcs have misgivings about their marching orders. Durotan (performed via motion-capture by Toby Kebbell from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), who is chieftain of his clan which is a subset of the massive orc horde, sneaks his pregnant wife Draka (Anna Galvin) through the orc plot. The humans, including Lothar (Travis Fimmel), who is apparently and disappointingly not of the Hill People, and King Llane (Dominic Cooper), are joined by the half-orc Garona (Paula Patton, in green-skinned pin-up mode). Ben Foster is also there, playing some kind of wizard in an unflattering robe.
The human material is mostly a bust. Fimmel looks sort of like a sweaty Paul Rudd, but doesn’t summon Ruddian levels of charm; he barely reaches Orlando Bloom country. The orcs, though, have their moments. They have a shiny, detailed texture that doesn’t exactly look real, but has a certain visual expressiveness lacking from so many CG characters (an orc baby gets particularly vivid animation). Patton, a charming performer who often nonetheless looks dazed or flummoxed in her real-world movie roles, comes off best of the non-animated actors; the outlandishness suits her. It suits the movie, too. Warcraft works best when embracing its fantastical dorkiness, which is to say: orcs for days.
As eye-filling as some of these sights are, though, they’re too often framed in Lord of the Rings-aping battle charges or videogame-aping overhead shots. Jones puts together a few striking shots emphasizing single images in the foreground and background, but the movie tends to drown out his craftiness with noisy magic. Warcraft is busy, and it’s probably a minor miracle that only about twenty to thirty minutes of its 120ish are outright boring; I’m also still not sure whether I should be impressed or galled by how many of its characters are unceremoniously killed off. I’m less ambiguous, though, about what they die for: a movie that confidently and idiotically assumes that it is a part one, of many. Warcraft doesn’t really end, and not in that Return of the King way; it simply leaves some of its characters in semi-interesting places where it can pause, setting up some changes for part two.
I have no idea if Warcraft will garner a part two; China seems to want one, but then again, a bunch of American movie critics might weep softly to themselves. The thing is, this isn’t actually a terrible Battlefield Earth-level miscalculation; it’s just a super CG-heavy and not especially witty orgy of fantasy-movie silliness. Or it would be, if it wanted to commit to the idea of being a movie, rather than expecting audiences to get psyched for two or three years from now, when they can come back to this unfinished material and level up.