The skepticism that has been whirling around “Warcraft” since the first trailer dropped for the epic fantasy adaptation of Blizzard Entertainment’s massive multiplayer online role playing game, directed by visionary sci-fi auteur Duncan Jones. Orcs … with feelings? And pierced tusks? No good can come of this. Critics have been gleefully sharpening their knives and have wasted no time in eviscerating the blockbuster franchise-launching hopeful.
With that context, this may come as a surprise, but “Warcraft” isn’t all that bad.
It’s all in the expectations, and the lower yours are, the more fun you might have. “Warcraft” isn’t going to win any awards, but it’s bold, unapologetic, hardcore fantasy. There are times when it feels like watching an ’80s heavy metal album cover in cinematic form, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There’s an audacity in how it drops the audience into this fantasy land of orcs, wizards and mages with little to no context or explanation. The film is preposterously silly, but somehow manages to be transporting.
The problems the humans face in this world of “Warcraft” are all too familiar. They’re dealing with an immigration problem, as hordes of hulking, pony-tailed orcs pour through a magical portal, their sights set on conquering this new realm with brute force and black magic. There’s dissent among the ranks of orcs though, as Durotan (Toby Kebbell) strives for peaceful co-existence, and the evil Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) seeks total, apocalyptic domination.
In the mix are knight Lothar (Travis Fimmel), King Wrynne (Dominic Cooper), and captured orc-human woman Garona (Paula Patton in egregiously bad green makeup), who are relying on the powerful wizard Medivh (Ben Foster) to save the kingdom. When Medivh’s powers are compromised, enterprising magical upstart Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) jumps in. Patton’s saddled with a terrible costume, and Cooper is ridiculous, but it’s really hard to not enjoy Foster and Schnetzer going all-out with the over-the-top wizarding theatrics.
Much of “Warcraft’s” marketing has centered around its technology and effects, bringing real performance to the CGI orcs, and Jones does manage to land some of the emotional moments in the relationship of Durotan and wife Draka (Anna Galvin), who fear the dissolution of their family in the conflict between the orcs. If only more of that had been directed to the interpersonal stories between the humans, which are slapdash or one-note.
For better or for worse, Jones has made a film that looks and feels like playing a multiplayer role-playing game, using high-angle shots to drop into and pull out of this world via an aerial saga map. That might feel jarring or less than cinematic to some, but it’s a daring way to visually imagine how a game of this type and film might find a unifying aesthetic. The effort is noted.
Proceed with caution to “Warcraft,” but there is entertainment to be found here. It’s certainly more absorbing than the lazily assembled “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” because Jones’ exertion and drive behind the film is palpable, if a bit sweaty. Some will assume that it’s only for pre-existing fans and gamers, but if you’re open to some insane, sometimes inane, but uncompromising fantasy, you just might enjoy yourself.
Cast: Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Dominic Cooper, Ben Foster, Toby Kebbell, Ruth Negga, Ben Schnetzer
Director: Duncan Jones
Rated PG-13 (extended sequences of intense fantasy violence)