Like any spoken language, there’s a language one learns from years of watching movies, and yet another from years of playing video games. For example, a seasoned moviegoer knows a concealed gun seen in the first act of any film will be fired in the third act. A seasoned gamer inherently understands if a barrel in any game is painted red, it’s full of explosives and must be detonated in the presence of enemies. “Warcraft” is fascinating because it expects its viewers to be fluent not only both languages, but also in the language of high fantasy, onw in which of course magic is real and of course dwarves, elves and orcs exist. I fear the average audience will lose track of this film, and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way — “Warcraft” is a geek film through and through, and that fact should be considered when purchasing a ticket.
Take the film’s masterful opening shot, for example. The camera situates itself upon the shoulder of an orc warrior, brandishing his weapon and charging at an armor-clad human. For those who’ve played third-person action games like “Resident Evil 4” or “Gears of War,” the shot will make perfect visual sense (this camera position is a common grammatical structure in the language of games). Those outside of this group will likely be jarred by its inadherence to cinematic convention. In another shot, the camera flies towards the sky and peers downwards at a contingent of orc warriors raiding a village. Gamers who played the original “Warcraft” series will feel at home through this god-like perspective, as it strongly resembles the interface of a real-time strategy game. Duncan Jones’s (“Moon”) efforts to incorporate these formal elements seriously and smoothly is commendable — many game-to-film adaptations try to do this and few accomplish it with any sort of thematic or structural depth. For that reason, I consider “Warcraft” the best video game-to-film adaptation yet.
Sadly, that’s a very, very low bar to match. Were it not flawed in a few key areas, “Warcraft” could have been a great movie in its own right. Staggeringly miscast with a promising but ultimately mediocre script, it is merely a competent fantasy war film.
The plot of “Warcraft” reminds me a lot of “Avatar,” another war epic that blends CGI characters onscreen with real people. “Warcraft” depicts a conflict between the Horde, a clan of Orcs forced out of their dying homeland and the Alliance, a peaceful human kingdom modeled off Arthurian legend. Jones is careful to give each side of the conflict an excellent motivator for their violence, and at times it was certainly difficult to determine which side of the conflict to root for. In that sense, the film is superior to James Cameron’s epic, which delineated the Na’vi as the heroes immediately and never fluctuated the film’s core morality. In “Warcraft,” each side is given many quiet moments of character that flesh out the culture of the two worlds. It certainly didn’t have to — the orcs could have been big dumb CGI boss monsters like Doomsday in “Batman v. Superman” — but in doing so, it gives this fight-fest much needed moral depth unseen in other 160-million-dollar blockbusters — if only the dialogue was up to speed. It’s poorly crafted and doesn’t try to sound different from modern British and American colloquial speech. It’s incongruent with the high-fantasy universe Jones has crafted around the speakers, which is much more R.A. Salvatore than George R.R. Martin.
The CGI in “Warcraft” is excellent. The orcs feel at once fantastical, with highly exaggerated proportions and goofily huge weaponry, but they also feel dangerous and tactile. Their warriors charge through the forests with a surprising sensation of weight thanks to some excellent motion tracking and audio design, and their clubs and axes feel intimidating as they cleave limbs off the much smaller humans. The excellent computer imagery also assists in the quieter moments between the orc characters, their eyes and mouths appearing surprisingly alive as they joke and argue and fight with one another.
But the anchor that nearly sinks “Warcraft” ’s ship is Jones’s casting choices, which are some of the worst I’ve seen in a film. For whatever reason, Jones seems hesitant to cast people who aren’t in their 20’s, even for roles that would demand a more weathered visage. Protagonist Lothar, played rather tepidly by Travis Fimmel (“Vikings”), has a son (Burkely Duffield, “Minority Report”) that looks merely five years his younger. Badass elder mage Medivh also seems like he should be older (like a Gandalf or a Dumbledore), but he’s played by a whiny Ben Foster, who you likely last saw grunging around as Claire’s artsy boyfriend on “Six Feet Under.” Viggo Mortensen made sense as a badass fantasy king in “Lord of the Rings.” Dominic Cooper (“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”) does not. Young mage Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer, “The Book Thief”) looks more like a Jewish fraternity brother than a wizard-in-training. It doesn’t help that they’re not given much to work with — their dialogue is often cringeworthy, and more often than not, they’re acting entirely on their own on greenscreen sound stages.
“Warcraft” gets my most cautious of recommendations. It is fascinating from a formal perspective and shows many signs of heart and promise, but it fails to deliver a masterful fantasy experience that fans of more grounded, mainstream genre fare like “Lord of the Rings” or “Game of Thrones” can appreciate. But I bet those hungrier for a geek fantasy epic can suspend a bit of disbelief and ignore the few rough patches “Warcraft” unfortunately has. If “Warcraft” doesn’t immediately alienate you, it will likely grab you.