An early moment in Warcraft holds a lot of promise. Durotan (Toby Kebbell), chief of the Frostwolves orc clan, and his wife Draka (Anna Galvin) are in their tent. Draka is almost ready to give birth, and the two lovingly tease each other about being fat. It’s a surprisingly warm and human moment, and between two entirely CGI characters. It’s also, unfortunately, the last moment Warcraft shows any ambition.
Warcraft is a movie fanatical about perfectly replicating every character model, every location, and above all every scrap of lore and every plot point from Blizzard’s sprawling video game franchise. There are points where director Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code) will swing the camera out as if the viewer was a player moving units around the map, or reenact moments from cinematics in the game.
The problem is that none of that stuff was all that compelling back in the late ’90s when it molded in tie-in novels nobody bothered to read. Warcraft‘s sub-Tolkien silliness has always been the least interesting aspect of the franchise, and an element not even the game itself takes all that seriously most of the time. If you’re a hardcore WoW player or have been, it might be thrilling to see Ironforge or Stormwind for a second, but it’s still just a fairly generic fantasy setting. And the movie spends a lot of time depicting it. For all the plot importance and impact an early montage of places and locations has, we might as well be following Ye Olde UPS Guy instead of the movie’s hero, played by Travis Fimmel. Oddly, the game’s humor is the one detail that’s been nixed. Warcraft games are full of gags and dumb puns, the kind of stuff that makes nerds giggle. Its absence, combined with some painfully clumsy and poorly timed attempts at gags, really emphasizes how dry and generic the whole exercise is as a story.
This still might have been salvaged if the rest of the sprawling cast had been given the small, human moments that Durotan and Draka have. But mostly, they just take meetings. If there’s one reliable measure of an action movie’s script quality, it’s the ratio of meetings to run time — the higher, the duller — and Warcraft is chock full of tense discussions around maps. Boy, does this movie love to gather its characters around a map and make somebody, usually Dominic Cooper, explain the last few minutes of the movie to us.
Watching Warcraft left me with an oddly familiar feeling, and as I walked out of the movie, I realized what it was. It was the same feeling I get whenever I have to sit through an unskippable cinematic in a video game. “Cinematics,” for the non-gamers, are little CGI movies games throw in to advance the plot, and there is nothing more frustrating than seeing one fade up, hammering every button on the controller, and realizing you just have to sit there, captive, while the game you paid $60 for refuses to let you do the thing you bought it to do.
The really grating part of all this is that Warcraft plays as if everyone assumes it’s going to be a massive hit and that this is just the first of many installments. It might not be wrong, too. This isn’t going to make much of a dent in America; I went to a Thursday night showing, and that was attended by less than 20 people. But the Asian market, and China in particular, is going to put it through the roof financially, or at least ensure that the multiple production companies that backed this make their money back. So we’re likely going to have far more Warcraft in our future, whether we want it or not. But there is one bright spot: At least I didn’t pay $60 to sit through this cinematic.