Long ago, deep in the age of Flogiwoolanananana in the realm of Kunjiwungigoonja, the browny-greeny mo-cap monsters known as Orcs have devastated the world they inhabit, and need to move on to a new one. Their dark wizard overlord Boomshanka opens portals to other planets with magic and sacrificial life-force harvested from captives. They move into a new planet where Tolkien does not exist and therefore his estate can’t sue over the word “Orc”. It’s also inhabited by humans, and the Orc advance guard clashes with the local knights and magicians. The humans are a diverse lot: there’s beardy king guy, beardy big magic guy, beardy small magic guy, beardy general guy, and many beardy knight guys. An Orc is an Orc, of course, of course, but one of the Orcs is a fairly nice guy with a wife and baby, and he recognises that further obedience to the evil sorcerer will only bring about the ultimate destruction of another world, so he tries to reach out to the humans. Meanwhile beardy small magic guy has some issues because he wimped out of becoming a beardy big magic guy, and the current beardy big magic guy is stretched to his limits trying to defend the kingdom and its dimwit warriors from the Orc onslaught. Caught between the two tribes is a half-human, half-Orc woman (Paula Patton) with sweet green skin and shapely canine teeth who is totally not Guardians of the Galaxy’s Gamora but is called Gonorrhoea or something similar, equipped with the funniest dental plate since Alec Guinness in The Ladykillers (1955).
As you’ve probably gathered by now, Warcraft did not greatly impress me. But it didn’t have to be this way. I actually had real hopes for it. If any video game offered enough material in its dense cod-mythological imagery and concepts for filming, World of Warcraft, the colossally popular online multiplayer game, seemed a good bet. And certainly the essentials of Warcraft as a film provide ample scope for, at the very least, a simple, straightforward fantasy-adventure tale. Ever since Super Mario Bros. (1993) bored and bewildered a generation of young gamers with its refusal to offer the game’s playful fantasy landscape with the simple good-humour of the animated TV version but instead turned it into a grungy, witless pseudo-satire, there’s been good reason to fear and loathe Hollywood’s negotiations with this demographic and its purse strings. If any filmmaker could overcome the seemingly intractable curse on video game film adaptations, surely it would be the talented director of the impressive Moon (2009) and Source Code (2011), Duncan Jones. Jones is apparently a great fan of the game too, promising that for once the game-to-film adaptation might not be a purely mercenary appropriation but an actual chance to synthesise the better qualities of both (I liked Need For Speed, 2014, quite a bit, but that was basically just a game’s title appended to a regulation hot-rod melodrama). But at some point, one form has to assert command over another. In any video game, there’s a point where the digitised sequences of actors spouting bombastic exposition must cease and let the gamer get on with what they shelled out good money to do, and in cinema the rules of storytelling and filmic good sense must eventually dominate.
The beggaring thing about Warcraft, one which made me stick it out longer than I would otherwise have bothered, lies in how Jones’ affection for the material and close grasp of its aesthetic manifests in some honourable instincts, but which in practice proves to be one of the many, many things gone wrong with this film – like many a tragic hero of an epic saga before him, Jones’ very fidelity has brought him low. He transfers the game’s distinctive colour schemes, visual patinas, clothing and hardware styles, and even something of its multiplayer essence and level structuring to the screen, but doesn’t seem to have ever wondered if this was a wise thing to do. For instance, watching actual actors swanning about in the impractically heavy and ornate armour familiar from the game proves wince-inducing, like sitting through a bunch of cosplayers acting out a reject script for an episode of Merlin. The backgrounds and settings look chintzy and fake. The Orcs insult all notions of locomotion, locution, proportion, and dress sense. Jones provides overhead shots like a god’s eye surveying the connected realms of the human domain in a nod to gaming technique, but fails to actually give any coherent idea of how these zones relate, or, more importantly, why we should give a sod about any of them. By starting the tale from the Orcs’ viewpoint, Jones mimics the fractured perspective of the game. But he robs the result of any sense of surprise or narrative tension as to how the humans can relate to these bizarre invaders, a crucial plot motif, because he's already signposted them as all too cheaply empathic - they love their wives and kiddies just like average B-movie grunts. Compare with John Carter (2012), which hinged on an interesting disparity between the parenting relationships of humans and Tharks. To fuse together, the two races' attitudes to life and fellowship had to be mediated by what was, by their communal standards, the eccentric closeness of Tars Tarkus and Sola, thus embodying a culture clash and then synthesis integral to the storyline and to the construction of its fantastical world. Jones' failure to evoke strangeness or radically divergent perspective is not necessarily an insurmountable failure of imagination, but it does point to a greater problem: Jones can’t come up with any other way to sustain his story to compensate, and his film is an utter failure at building a universe.
Warcraft’s hideous, schlocky look meshes with a flat, barely functional screenplay, albeit one that keeps hinting at Jones’ desire to insert a certain low-key humanism into a genre better known for massive armies pummelling one-another. This quality manifests early in the film as the nice guy Orc, Durotan (Toby Kebbell, apparently), converses with his wife. He is clearly, massive and frightening in appearance as he is, no monster. The same quality manifests in scattered moments throughout, several centring around Lady Taria (Ruth Negga), wife of the king Llane Wrynn (Dominic Cooper), who has gifts of pacification and empathy, with Jones exploiting Negga’s big-eyed soul effectively. But this likeable streak in Jones’ efforts is swallowed up and outmatched by bland and featureless characters played mostly by bland and featureless actors, an approach to the story that somehow manages to be, at once, bewildering and clod-obvious. Meanwhile there’s generational tension between the two men whose gifts with magic, Medivh (Ben Foster) and the other guy...look, honestly, I couldn't differentiate between the other leads and my elbow. Jones takes the approach that worked for Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films in simply immersing the viewer in his fantasy world, which would be admirable if, firstly, that fantasy world had any discernible substance apart from a grab-bag of borrowed and recycled tropes, and if we had any sense of characters and their relationships with the world about them. Jackson’s ploy worked for him because Middle-earth was nearly as strange to his Hobbit heroes as to us, and the unfolding of the tale had actual dramatic structuring and convincing plot stakes. Jones has no idea how to excite or tantalise with his realm; he simply dumps it in our lap as if to say, here, see what you can do with it. One can’t simply blame the studio either, as Jones cowrote the script.
This could be easily be mistaken as by-product of a priority clash between pleasing fans and leading in newcomers, as Jones sets out with the assumption that, first and foremost, he's speaking to gamers already familiar with the basic infrastructure of this material. But even if that is the case, surely even game fans want more from this sort of thing more than stick-figure protagonists played by bewildered, interchangeable actors registering less chemistry than the surface of Europa, mouthing insipid dialogue and lumbering through action scenes and fantasy landscapes that would require a strong shot of adrenalin to count as half-hearted. The ideal audience member seems to have been conceived as a thirteen-year-old fan of the game, the kind who’ll rave about how the costumes look just like in the game but wonders why they had to talk so much. The game’s aesthetic closely resembles an anime take on the Western fantasy cycles, and I wondered several times throughout what a genuine anime filmmaker might have done with it. Jones’ gifts evinced so far as a filmmaker – his wry sense of humour, his intelligence in matching gimmicky narratives to strong feeling, his structural bravura – are nowhere to be seen here, and his lacks at this point are revealed cruelly, particularly when it comes to staging action. Perhaps the film recovers or does something interesting in its second hour, but frankly I couldn’t ride out Warcraft long beyond the half-way mark: I walked out on it. Almost nothing here works. Warcraft is more than just an excruciating disaster. It feels like some kind of severing point, a moment that might mark not just a severe blow to a promising filmmaker, but also a betrayal of whatever soul was left in fantasy storytelling and big-budget, big-audience moviemaking. Is this really what such films will be from now on -- monuments to cinema's defeat, pixelated voids where our best fledgling talents will be chained and consumed, Prometheus-like, in the course of creating amusement in slavish obeisance to lounge room nerdlings?