What happens when a true talent royally screws up an ambitious movie he’s staking his reputation on? It’ll look something like this massively expensive ($160 million) and mostly worthless film version of a role-playing video game that’s been losing steam for half a decade. And yet there is not a minute of Warcraft, featuring a battle between humans and invading, tusk-mouthed orcs, in which you can’t feel director Duncan Jones straining to bring soul to his computer-generated canvas. Close, but no cigar.
A word about Jones. His first two films, 2009’s Moon and 2011’s Source Code, are minimalist sci-fi gems. How did he get infected by the gigantism of Warcraft? For starters, Jones is a lifelong gamer who shared his enthusiasm with his late dad, David Bowie. Jones wanted his movie to have heroes and villains on both sides of the war, to turn an escapist fantasy on its silly head and fill it with ferocity and feeling.
Not happening. What’s onscreen is a godawful mess, leaving the actors to suck wind while the film collapses around them. If you’ve never played the game, you might as well watch the movie stoned. (At least you won’t feel the pain.) Jones puts his best orc forward. That would be the warrior chief Durotan, energetically acted in motion capture by Toby Kebbell. The humongous giant gets an aww moment early on, when his wife, Draka (Anna Galvin), delivers the cutest orc baby.
But enough fluff. Durotan tells us in voiceover: “Our world was dying, and I had to find my clan a new home.” That leads Gul’dan (Daniel Wu), the evil warlock lord of the orcs, to open a portal into Azeroth, where humans live in peace. Durotan wants to make nice. Gul’dan doesn’t. He wants blood. It’s war!
Durotan has a human mirror-image in Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel of TV’s Vikings), a knight who loyally serves his king and queen (Dominic Cooper and Ruth Negga) and worries that his grown son, Callan (Burkely Duffield), will die in battle. Lothan still finds time to get it on with Garona (Paula Patton), a half-orc, half-human warrior. Patton must play her ridiculous role with green skin and two novelty-store fangs that keep rendering her dialogue unintelligible, which might be a blessing given the mouthfuls of expository dialogue cooked up by Jones and co-writer Charles Leavitt. And did I mention Medivh (Ben Foster), the wizard Guardian of Azeroth who also has a son-like protege in Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer, one of the film’s few bright spots), a kid who trusts no one. For good reason. Like Gil’dan, Medivh is siphoning the life force from those he should serve.
Who siphoned the life force out of this movie? Did the studio interfere? Was Jones forced to jam a better, much longer movie into a two-hour compromise that appears to have been put together by editors using blunt instruments and wearing blindfolds? The result is an indigestible stew that blends Warcraft with elements of Avatar, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and every escapist fantasy that ever managed to find an audience. Jones is too good to perish in the ash of this big bombola. He’ll live to fight another day. Though the ending begs for a sequel, my guess is that this film franchise won’t be so lucky. You leave Warcraft with two words ringing in your ear: Game over.