Warcraft opens with an orc couple - Durotan and Draca - who are concerned for the fate of their unborn child, their clan, and their world. It’s a touching scene with moments of light-humour and probably the best character VFX since Peter Jackson’s Smaug. Worry is tangible on Durotan’s face from the very first shot - an impressive feat considering the tusks.
From there the audience follows Durotan’s clan as they migrate towards a portal into another world. The Orc home world of Draenor is dying, and malicious sorcerer Gul’dan has harnessed the eerie green ‘Fel’ magic in order to transport his horde into the human world of Azeroth which - as all malicious sorcerers in fantasy literature do -he wants to claim for his own. The corruptive nature of power is a common theme in fantasy, so well-trod in fact that Gul’dan’s single-minded pursuit of more power, regardless of the cost, comes across relatively flat. He never rises above the evil magic-wielder stereotype, sucking the lives from innocent bystanders just, because. He’s an amalgamation of Emperor Palpatine and Sauron, only stripped of all the qualities that make them compelling villains.
It’s a shame that so many of the characters come across this way. Dominic Cooper’s benevolent King Llane is purely that; a king prepared to sacrifice himself for the good of his kingdom. There’s none of the smarmy confidence of Cooper’s Howard Stark. He’s just a good guy—and in a time where Game of Thrones is dominating televisions across the world, straight-up good guys and bad guys are a little bit boring. Sure, there are a few G.R.R Martin-esque betrayals and surprising deaths, but so many of the characters are underdeveloped that most of these reveals come about like cardboard cut-outs falling flat on their faces. It’s especially disappointing as there are hints towards really interesting characters in the cast.
Travis Fimmel plays Sir Anduin Lothar as slightly squirmy, almost drunk throughout the film, but it is so packed with characters and plotlines that he’s never really given room to develop beyond the role of military commander and struggling father. Toby Kebbell’s Durotan is easily the best thing in the entire movie, but even his leaps of logic leave a lot to be desired. His decision to approach the humans with an offer of alliance comes out of thin air. It might have more emotional depth given time to build towards the choice to betray his own kind. But Warcraft also needs to establish Guardian Medivh, half-breed slave Garona, runaway mage Khadgar, et cetera. There’s so much to do and so little time. There are moments where we linger on something intriguing: a concealed gun during an apparently peaceful negotiation, before we are whisked away in service of the plot to some less successful aspect of the film.
Khadgar is a particularly irritating riff on the fantasy trope of the magical chosen one. A fugitive on the run from his vows as a mage who spends much of the film in awe of Guardian Medivh. While Medivh seems disdainful of the young mage at best, he spends a good amount of time - painfully obviously - alluding to the possibility that Khadgar may take over the role as Guardian of Azeroth one day. Khadgar never once asks what he means by this. He never once looks surprised at these implications. Supposedly the audience shouldn’t be surprised either. It’s an obtuse reference to the prophesied heroes of ye olde fantasy designed purely to justify the power Khadgar finds himself wielding late-on in the movie. Assumedly, anyway, as there’s no other explanation for why he’s abruptly teleporting across the continent and wiping out entire stretches of woodland. It’s as if Duncan Jones is deliberately building his characters on bygone stereotypes to force audiences to fill in plot holes.
Where Warcraft really succeeds is in its loyalty to the world. There’s an attention to detail that borders on obsessive. Mirelurks creep under bridges and familiar game-locations flash by at breakneck pace. The griffon roost in Stormwind city is a carbon copy of the one from the game, and when flames are spotted in the north-east, you know Northshire Abbey is in trouble. It’s a nostalgia trip for long-time fans, but those among the audience who don’t know the difference between draeni and orcs are going to feel left out.
There’s just enough at stake to keep the drama compelling, and when the action comes, Duncan Jones really delivers. Despite the reliance on CGI, the orcs have a tangible weight, crushing necks and swinging horses around like sacks of meat. The issue really isn’t with the CGI, which is consistently brilliant. It might seem cartoony, but its in-keeping with the visual style of the various Warcraft game titles. The issue is when the film eschews CGI for practical effects and props, mainly because they look like toys.
Star Wars popularised the gritty, lived-in aesthetic of modern fantasy movies, and Peter Jackson perfected it with his epic adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. It’s almost as if, in telling a story of kings and war chiefs and the collision of worlds, Jones has gone back to both the cinematic and literary origins of the genre. The characters are Arthurian, with hints at humanisation being lost in the hubbub of the plot. And the crisp physical props and costumes are reminiscent of early fantasy movies which sacrificed the reality of adventuring grime for the glamour of cleanliness.
‘There has been a war between orcs and humans for as long as can be remembered’, is the film’s opening line. But orcs and men had been at war for 40 years before Blizzard released the first instalment in the Warcraft series. Tolkien created that racial divide. While Jones makes genuine attempts to humanise the horde in a way that Tolkien never did, it’s a tact that seldom pays off. It begs the question: was the beginning really the best place to begin?
His grasp of the world of Warcraft was effortless and there’s such an immense amount of lore to draw from, that Warcraft: The Beginning just feels like they’re playing it safe.
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