Warcraft film review: can Duncan Jones break the videogame movie curse?

Orcs and humans clash in epic fantasy Warcraft


At some point somebody’s going to make a great videogame movie that will break the curse. While Duncan Jones’ Warcraft certainly isn’t the worst videogame movie ever made, it’s sadly not the champion we were hoping for.

With the orc world Draenor on the brink of becoming a barren wasteland, a war party is sent through a portal by their sorcerer leader Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) to claim the human realm of Azeroth for The Horde.

As the humans scramble to deal with this threat, orc chieftain Durotan (Toby Kebbell) realises that Gul’dan’s dark magic will destroy this green world too. Can he find a way to forge peace, and can human knight Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel) keep his king (Dominic Cooper) and kingdom safe?

Warcraft has a lot of material for us to get through (species, institutions, terminology), and it’s clear how much love Jones has for this world. At its best, Warcraft feels like a heartfelt epic fantasy throwback, but with the budget and effects to deliver amazing battle eagles, mountaintop citadels, magical face-offs and orcs beating the crap out of each other. At its worst, it feels like a clunky Dungeons & Dragons session.

So, the good: first off, the effects are pretty excellent. It’s a beautifully realised world; the manifestation of the mages’ magic is great, and above all, the mo-cap orcs look stunning. Durotan is fantastically detailed and emotive, and Kebbell’s performance shines through, creating a character that feels strong enough to carry a film on his own.

However, it’s a very busy movie, and the focus is constantly fluttering around Azeroth as characters fly, teleport and ride from one location to another. The humans’ Durotan equivalent is twinkly eyed badass Lothar, but there’s also rebellious young mage Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), noble king Llane (Cooper), his equally noble queen Taria (Ruth Negga), and incredibly powerful mage/Guardian Medivh (Ben Foster), while half-orc Garona (Paula Patton) is torn between her human captors and the orcs who enslaved her.

There’s not a huge amount of time for Durotan, or whichever character sparks your interest, and characters’ physical journeys are kept too separate for any kind of group dynamic to form.

At some point there was obviously a real effort made to give each of them a proper backstory, but what we get in the movie is fragments of character as each one expresses regret over a connection missed or lost. The intended goal seems to be showing us that they all have more in common than they think, which plays nicely into the film’s themes of immigration and climate change, but the result is that most of these characters feel frustratingly underwritten.

warcraft_lotharThere’s real promise here, particularly when the actors (notably Fimmel and Patton, the latter of whom thankfully ditches the slave rags for armour and a sword relatively quickly) get to enjoy themselves, but everyone involved, cast and filmmakers, takes things so seriously that there’s a weird lack of joy to it.

Foster does well with his aloof Guardian, but everything Medivh does signposts a later plot development. Schnetzer’s Khadgar is occasionally fun but his journey is all too frequently sidelined. There’s no room for anything to breathe and it’s lacking the necessary momentum to make that problem irrelevant.

Fans of the games may find a treasure trove of Easter eggs and the visuals are undoubtedly impressive, but it’s far too choppy to keep any sense of momentum or to ever really get us invested in any one storyline, which is a shame given Jones’ admirable willingness to kill off characters.

When Warcraft is weird, it’s fun (portal travel-induced labour, anyone?), and there are moments when it comes alive (the orc combat sequences are pretty good). However, it’s messy, overstuffed and clunky, the dialogue frequently becomes functional or ponderous, and our love of battle animals and scrapping orcs can only carry us so far. A director’s cut might run more smoothly and offer some of the characters time to actually develop, but what we’ve got for now is an ambitious disappointment with its heart in the right place.