Director: Duncan Jones
Cast: Travis Fimmel, Toby Kebbell, Paula Patton, Dominic Cooper, Ben Foster, Ruth Negga, Clancy Brown, Rob Kazinsky, Daniel Wu
Running Time: 123 minutes
Release Date:May 30th
There I was, primed and ready to unleash a terrible ‘More like SNORECRAFT, am I right?!’ gag to open this review when all of a sudden, the busy mess that is Warcraft: The Beginning began to win me over.
Duncan Jones’ long-awaited (as much for curiosity purposes as anything else) epic is indeed a sprawling jumble that takes some time to get going and regularly threatens to enter ‘clusterfuck’ territory but there’s a certain bizarre charm to the entire affair that leaves this scribe a touch mystified by the rather ostentatious levels of venom that it has provoked in critics.
The videogame-to-screen transfer is arguably the most poisoned chalice a filmmaker can attempt to sip from, and it’s safe to suggest that quite a lot of those who worshipped Moon and enjoyed Source Code would rather see Duncan Jones do literally anything else rather than enter the blockbuster realm in order to mill about with CGI-drenched orcs. Alas, Jones is a noted fan of the games and so here we are.
Quite the gamble, Warcraft: The Beginning is as niche as potential franchise kick-offs get. There are few guarantees for an in-built audience when you’re dealing with a fan base that has long since dwindled to the point that the series’ parent company apparently no longer issues sales figures, and so Jones has the unenviable task of essentially establishing an entire universe, its characters and the trials and tribulations found within, all while drawing from rather dense source material.
For viewers such as myself with no previous relationship with the text, here’s how it all shakes out – a race of orcs , in need of a new world, attempt to conquer the human-populated kingdom of Azeroth via brute force. Warrior chieftain and new father Durotan (Toby Kebbell) would prefer a more peaceful solution but is overruled by his villainous counterparts and superiors. Violence ensues and war begins. On the human side, heroic knight Sir Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel) attempts to restore order in the name of his king (Dominic Cooper) and queen (Ruth Negga). Meanwhile, magic abounds as Ben Foster’s powerful sorcerer and his young, possibly-out-of-his-depth apprentice (Ben Schnetzer) clash amidst the struggle. Oh and Paula Patton is also along for the ride as some kind of orc/human hybrid but WHO’S SIDE IS SHE ON?
Er, got all that? There’s no time to waste and Jones’ film has little room to breathe, racing from scene to scene with Stars Wars-esque dissolves and no concern for those who might require a bathroom break. That might sound frenetic and fun, but Warcraft has so much work to do in its first hour that it can feel both genuinely overwhelming and an utter slog.
To the eternal credit of cast and crew (and they’re going to need an arm around the shoulder before all is said and done with this one), almost everyone puts in a Herculean shift. Toby Kebbell builds on his menace in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes with another stunning motion capture turn that manages to seamlessly blend physicality and emotion, once more prompting the question of why there is no Academy Award for such performances. Durotan emerges as a figure of true pathos, which is a remarkable feat in a work as downright goofy as Warcraft can be. The orcs are something of a triumph of design, managing to exist as both cartoonish schlock and compelling figures with emotional weight.
Elsewhere, Paula Patton is game for anything, Daniel Wu and Clancy Brown nail the requisite viciousness of their antagonists and though Dominic Cooper feels a touch fragile as the leader of an entire world, he hits his grace notes when called upon. Fimmel and Foster are more problematic. If anything, Fimmel – a distractingly handsome splice of Brad Pitt and Tom Hardy – would be better served in the skin of Medivh, whom Foster oddly imbues with so much lifeless stoicism that he comes across as what Jesus Christ might look like had he gobbled down a few sedatives. Fimmel makes for a fine Generic Noble Hero, but his Lothar, like the film he finds himself in, is tonally confused; veering from charismatic to petulant to wounded to brave as quickly as the scenes melt into one another.
And yet, somehow, Warcraft pulls itself together during a spirited final act. Jones is ticking boxes here, but he’s punching outside the lines with relish, his determination and ambition to make this mess tie together witnessed in every single frame. Far from the abomination it will likely be recalled as (see also; last year’s Fantastic 4, itself clearly hampered due to managing expectations), Duncan Jones’ curious beast is perfectly acceptable popcorn fare should you be willing to let what these kinds of event pictures do what they are engineered to do; sweep you away for a couple of hours, flaws and all. International box office will likely determine whether or not Jones gets to play with these toys again, but he’s at least earned the chance to do better.