Review: High-fantasy ‘Warcraft’ can’t shake game-to-movie adaptation problems

Today I turned 46 years old.

I”m not sure if that”s too old for me to play video games. I certainly hope not, since I find them relaxing in a way that is valuable to me. Then again, I”m not sure who gets to decide if they are or aren”t appropriate, since I”m part of the first generation to be able to grow up playing games. I was there for Pong and Space Invaders and Asteroids and Pac-Man, and I was there for the first consoles at home. I”ve been a fan as long as there have been video games, and I remain a devoted fan of gaming in general even if I don”t always love the culture around it.

What I find strange is how completely and utterly I have somehow avoided World Of Warcraft. Unlike films, where I find that I”m open to pretty much anything, there are lots of games I won”t play because I just don”t like the mechanics or the genre. I remember looking at about ten minutes of gameplay for WoW online and realizing immediately that it would not be for me. I feel the same way about the Final Fantasy games and most strategy combat games, and I absolutely detest stealth games because I am, in games as in life, a big giant noisy moose. As a result of this big fat blind spot, I have no comparison to make when it comes to Warcraft as an adaptation, which puts me solidly in the majority of the audience that Legendary and Universal are hoping will show up for the film when it arrives in theaters.

There is a density to the mythology suggested by this movie that makes me feel like the hardcore are going to have a very different experience. To their credit, the filmmakers try not to dump all of the exposition on you at once. There”s no opening crawl, no immediate explanation of things. I still remember the feeling when I showed up at the theater to see Dune and they handed me a sheet full of terms and characters and history. I had read the book, so it made sense to me, but I knew right away that the film was going to tank at the box office. There”s a rule that I think filmmakers should follow when they”re trying to do this kind of giant canvass big movie: the more complicated your mythology, the less complicated your story needs to be. You can”t ask an audience to keep track of a complicated plot and a dense cast if you”re also introducing all the rules of a fictional universe that is absolutely full of rules. Warcraft errs in how much it asks the audience to juggle, and as a result, the things that the film does well (and I think there are many) are muffled somewhat.

The film both opens and closes on extremely close shots of Orc characters, completely created as digital creatures, and it”s clear that director Duncan Jones is calling his shot by doing that. He knows that in order for his film to work, you have to have some investment in these digital characters, and you have to believe that they share a world with the live-action characters played by the various humans like Dominic Cooper, Ben Foster, Ruth Negga, and Travis Fimmel. How well you feel they pulled it off may greatly influence how you feel about the film itself. I think ILM”s character work is impressive, even as I think the designs themselves simply don”t feel like they fit into the same world as the people, no matter how well the performance capture and the animation mesh to create living breathing things. At this point, I”m fascinated by films where you have a sizable ensemble of non-human characters, because I”m fascinated by the way actors manage to bring these things to life. It”s a complicated dance between the actors and the animators, between the pure imaginative side of performance and the incredibly technical side of translating that into a finished fully rendered character, and it helps that you have performers like Toby Kebbell and Terry Notary, guys who have experience doing this, working alongside performers like Robert Kazinsky and Daniel Wu and Clancy Brown who seem to have taken to it with aplomb. Special mention must be made of Anna Galvin, who plays Draka, the wife of Durotan (Kebbell), the main Orc in the story. Galvin does very physical work that sells the idea that she”s this powerful warrior creature and a mother at the same time, the kind of work you have to do if you”re going to truly make this kind of thing feel alive.

On the human side of things, the results are a little more uneven. I”m unfamiliar with Travis Fimmel from his TV work, and I know he”s got very ardent fans, so let me qualify this by saying I”m talking about this movie, and this movie alone. As Anduin Lothar, ostensibly the main hero of the film, he does his best to ground this high fantasy in recognizable human emotion, but he”s playing against the tone of the thing almost all the way through. Ben Foster fares much better because he has obviously been cast for his essential Ben Foster-ness. Compare this to when he was miscast in X-Men: The Last Stand and you can see just how much of a difference it makes when you cast someone in the right role. He plays Medivh, a Guardian, which appears to be a magic-user charged with protecting an entire world, Azeroth, as a sort of retired rock star, with a lot of swagger as the film opens. Gradually, though, the magic appears to take a toll on him, and Foster commits to it completely. I also think Paula Patton gives this movie everything she can, but she”s saddled with an unfortunate design, serving as the bridge between the live-action human beings and the fully-animated Orcs. She”s given a make-up to wear that extends two of her lower teeth, and she”s been digitally rotoscoped green. Patton is such a strong and charismatic performer that she almost makes you forget the issues, but it”s tough. I like where they ultimately leave her character, and if there”s any story I”d be curious to see continued in the sequel, it would be hers. But saying that raises the biggest problem with the movie: it is only act one of an obviously-larger story.

Again… fans of the game may be excited by the particular point in the history of the game”s lore that screenwriters Jones, Charles Leavitt, and Chris Metzen decided to use as this first film, and they may well be excited by the potential at the end of the film. I”m not opposed to the idea of world-building, but this feels particularly incomplete. Alliances are shuffled, friendships both new and old are tested, and destinies are thwarted, and it all feels like they”re just moving pieces into place for the story they”re ultimately interested in telling. Part of great storytelling is not just knowing what story you want to tell, but also knowing where that story starts and where it ends. We are living through a Golden Age Of Backstory, where there”s not a single interesting story that can”t be rendered inert by backing up to tell all the expository material in place of actual narrative. I”m waiting for the prequels-to-the-prequels trend to begin, where people “fix” all the problems with the decade-plus of unwanted prequels that Hollywood has churned out by telling stories that go back even further and over-explain things even more. I feel like as much as I like parts of Warcraft, I cannot get past the idea that this is all just a rev up to something else. When I sign on to watch a TV show like Game Of Thrones, I know I”m asking them to tell me a story that”s going to meander and take some time and that may not reveal its true focus for quite some time. But in a movie theater, the implied contract between storyteller and audience is different, and there is some sort of promise that things will come to a conclusion of sorts.

You can call your shot at the start, declaring something to be part of a trilogy, like Lord Of The Rings or Harry Potter did, but more often, movies that try to start an ongoing series over-reach, and you end up with Eragon or The Dark Is Rising. They don”t commit to calling this a trilogy, but it sure feels like one, because of how unresolved every single thing is, right down to the Moses riff they run in the film”s final moments. While I liked things about this, and was more engaged by the end of the film than I expected to be, it is unlikely we”ll be returning to Azeroth because I can”t imagine general audiences being able to make the connection they”d have to for this no-doubt-wildly-expensive prospect to pay off.

Warcraft opens in US theaters on June 10, 2016.