Fans of the wildly popular “Warcraft” video game franchise have been craving a film adaptation for decades. However, for just as long, the property has been declared as “unfilmable” because of its sprawling mythos dependent on creating armies of fantasy characters. Yet, here we are.
Universal Pictures entrusted acclaimed genre director Duncan Jones (“Moon,” “Source Code”) with the reins of an ambitious action-adventure franchise-starter filled with orcs, dwarves, elves, battle scenes and magic. Don’t believe the bad buzz: Jones has embraced that “unfilmable” game, and made a ferocious and fun journey through the worlds of “Warcraft.”
We begin with orc chieftain Durotan (“Fantastic Four’s” Toby Kebbell) and his wife Draka (Anna Galvin), who are on the verge of an epic battle and birthing their first-born. With their world dying from a strange plague, the orcs are led by the shaman Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) on a desperate mission through a planet-leaping portal to a human kingdom, which they aim to conquer for their new home. Naturally, that puts the orc clans at odds with King Llane (“Preacher’s” Dominic Cooper), his queen Taria (“Preacher’s” Ruth Negga), the Guardian Medivh (Ben Foster), the impulsive mage Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) and the great warrior Lothar (“Vikings” star Travis Fimmel). And so war is on!
On the battlefront, Jones not only crafts a series of tense confrontations between small troops, and one-on-one kill-or-be-killed showdowns, but also a dynamic finale, breathtaking in its breadth and casualties. The fight choreography sings with surprising moves, and jolting blows, and the team behind the visual effects did a stupendous job creating towering orcs who clash convincingly with armor-clad humans. The settings and character designs are lovingly detailed, and true to the game’s aesthetic, effectlively making this fantasy world feel real and immersive.
Rather than presenting the orcs as one-dimensional thugs or evil invaders, Jones is deliberate in creating moral complexity with Durotan’s arc. He’s presented as a not only a warrior but also a father, husband, and protector of his clan. But just because he sees no way around this land war doesn’t mean Durotan supports Gul’dan’s methods, which involve sucking the life out of prisoners to power his spells. Through a growling yet tender voice performance, Kebbell breathes earnest humanity into this orc that makes him captivating in every frame and the true hero of the film. Which is bad news for Alliance hero Lothar.
Fimmel’s human knight is noble, brave and deeply dedicated to doing right by his kingdom and his son, a soldier following in his footsteps. In many respects, he’s a parallel of Durotan, meant to show the audience these two beings aren’t really so different. But where Kebbell’s character is given enough character moments for us to really feel for Durotan, Lothar’s arc is so tersely presented that it seems more like a checklist than a story: Establish he’s loyal to the king? Check. Establish his son is dying to impress him? Check. Love interest? Check. Tragedy? Check. Quirky sidekick, che — actually his “spell chucker” Khadgar is also lamely sketched, leaving two of the main characters feeling frustratingly one-dimensional and lackluster for most of the film. Thankfully, the climax finally gives the pair some worthwhile banter and inventive team-up fight moves. Plus, Fimmel charms by making barefoot battles seem incredibly macho instead of laughably ludicrous.
But the real standout of this stuffed-to-the-gills adventure is Paula Patton as the half-orc Garona, a fascinating figure with a heart-wrenching journey of resilience. Torn between two cultures, she was enslaved by Gul’dan before being captured by the humans, who offered her freedom in exchange for information on the orc armies. With a steely gaze, confident physicality, sharp timing and a crisp delivery, Patton forges Garona as a hardened heroine. While her love story with a certain human feels undercooked and a bit extraneous, Garona is nonetheless the most compelling element the film has going, and perfectly employed in a dramatic finale fight.
Props for performances can go ’round, however: Cooper and Negga are suitably regal and warm as the beloved king and queen, while Galvin, Wu, Clancy Brown and Robert Kazinsky bring their orcs to life with vibrant voice-acting and grand mo-cap moves. And although he seems a bit young to play a world-weary mage, Ben Foster brings an exciting gravitas and dash of camp to the role of this teleporting spell-caster who stirs up some wondrous whimsy. Credit where it’s due, though, as Jones is careful to lace moments of levity, comedy and warmth throughout, keeping “Warcraft” from falling into a slog of grim brutality. I’d actually have liked more moments like these that favored character and world-building over plotting. Which brings me to “Warcraft”s big issue: It’s too short!
Aside from an intimate (and crucial) opening scene between Durotan and Draka, “Warcraft” is breathlessly sprinting through its story to keep things around the two-hour mark. Some scenes feel abruptly clipped while others are wedged in strictly to clog would-be plot holes. In this race against run time, exposition and action are valued over pace, character development and properly landing emotional beats. That creates an ugly snarl of storytelling as characters and competing plot lines awkwardly collide in the clattering third act.
Basically, you can feel the 40 minutes Jones has admitted have been chopped from the theatrical release. These missing minutes aren’t enough to ruin this enjoyable and daring adaptation, but they do dull its edge.
“Warcraft” opens today nationwide.
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