“Warcraft” is a once-in-a-generation disaster, one of the most ill-advised and ill-conceived studio films of this modern blockbuster era, but you have to give Universal some credit for trying. At a time when films of this scale are defined by safety and defenestrated by compromise — at a time when blockbusters are rigorously engineered to appeal to the broadest possible audience — Universal went all-in on a summer movie so niche and nerdy that it makes “Willow” look like “Lord of the Rings,” and “Lord of the Rings” look like “Masterpiece Theatre.”
Adapted from Blizzard Entertainment’s massively popular computer game series of the same name and resulting from a visionary deal that Universal forged with the software giant more than a decade ago (long before “Avatar” confirmed the potential upside of such a gamble), the film once seemed poised to bridge the seemingly uncrossable gap between movies and video games. Years passed without any evidence that the project was actually pushing forward, but a steady drip of exciting production news helped sustain interest. When director Sam Raimi dropped out, he was replaced with Duncan Jones (“Moon”) a talented young director with real credibility and a deep-seated passion for the material. When “The Force Awakens” crowded the film’s release date, Universal confidently repositioned “Warcraft” as an early summer tentpole.
Now, 10 years and several directors after it was first announced, “Warcraft” is finally here, and not only does it fail to bridge the gap between movies and video games, it self-immolates and swan-dives into the void, illuminating a dark rift that’s even deeper than it is wide. A grotesque, funhouse reflection of modern blockbuster cinema, the film is truly a staggering failure, and there’s no joy to be found in its profound awfulness — an exciting director has burned off several of his best years, a major Hollywood studio has been punished for their ambition and two disparate mediums have exposed the worst in each other.
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Presented in garish 3D so vivid that viewers can practically feel the movie losing money in real time, “Warcraft” unfolds as though a Dungeon Master were narrating a very expensive episode of “Drunk History.” Essentially a feature-length prequel save for its first two minutes, the film opens with growly narration about how humans and orcs have always been at war, and then jumps back in time to illustrate how the two species first came into contact.
Orcs, for those unfamiliar with the videogame franchise, are a species of steroidal homunculi warriors who live by a savage code that seems incongruous with their posh British accents. A nomadic people who rove between worlds as a collective “horde,” these motion-captured monstrosities have braided hair, giant hammers and protruding molars (which they pierce with rings). The ones who have lines are white, and the ones who exist as fodder for the action scenes are green — while this dichotomy almost certainly causes some kind of racial discord in the orc community, it’s also our only means of telling these things apart.
The orcs are supposedly a smart species, but they have yet to invent t-shirts, nor can they seem to figure out why every world they inhabit seems to start dying after their obviously evil wizard leader (Daniel Wu as the power-mad Gul’dan) drains the land for fuel. On one hand, it’s hard to respect the intelligence of the orcs when they fail to see that Gul’dan — who has glowing green eyes and feeds his magic portal by literally siphoning the souls of his slaves — is pure evil. On the other hand, the orcs’ blind allegiance to power is one of their most recognizably human qualities.
And Jones’ script, which he co-wrote with Charles Leavitt, is nothing if not focused on the orcs’ underlying humanity. Our first proper introduction to their way of life is an appreciably tender moment in which a bland warrior named Durotan (“Fantastic Four” star Toby Kebbell) is goofing around with his pregnant wife Draka (Anna Galvin) in the privacy of their war hut. There’s nothing like watching a weightless, humanoid CG wildebeest use his massive hand to caress his mate’s swollen belly. Of course, a scene like this one only exists to heighten the stakes of the set piece that follows, and Gul’dan has quite a spectacle in store for us: The hunchbacked mystic, having exhausted the horde’s current planet, plans to open a massive portal through which he will lead his army to the realm of Azeroth (a verdant place full of humans who can be used as kindling for whatever dark shenanigans Gul’dan gets up to next). And so Gul’dan leads Durotan, Draka and some other indistinguishable digital cretins into Azeroth, inciting a needlessly convoluted war between orcs and humans.
The film’s human hero is somehow even less interesting than his orc counterpart. Like someone took a still photo of Aragorn and faxed it to another franchise, Lothar (Travis Fimmel) is a military man with rangy hair and a glinty smile that says “I’m the least ridiculous-looking person here, so I guess I’m the protagonist?” Compared to the empty and uninspired Lothar, “Avatar” protagonist Jake Scully feels like he fell out of a Dickens novel. When a dorky young mage named Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) warns Lothar that the orcs have spilled into Azeroth, the two men race to consult the reclusive wizard Medivh (Ben Foster, delivering a performance so big that it can probably be seen from space). He divines what we already know: War is coming.
Bridging the gap between the two factions is a half-orc, half-human woman named Garona (Paula Patton), who Lothar frees from Gul’dan’s grasp. Painted green and sporting a set of plastic Halloween fangs on the wrong half of her teeth, Patton consistently looks like she’s about to lose a cos-play contest for her own character. But the most troubling thing about Garona isn’t her cheap aesthetic, or her flat affect, or even the fact that the film’s plot would be almost completely unchanged if she were erased from it entirely. No, the most troubling thing about Garona is that a human man had sex with a female orc in order to bring her into this world (even the “Warcraft” community is confused about her lineage, and yet the film bafflingly assumes that it won’t be a problem for newcomers).
Garona’s inexplicable parentage — which is fun to mock, but impossible to ignore — epitomizes the incoherent nature of the film’s fantasy world. Jones and co. assumed the unenviable task of chiseling a coherent adventure film from a dizzyingly dense mythology, but the degree of difficulty can’t excuse the degree of failure. Whereas “The Fellowship of the Ring” baked the myths of Middle Earth into every frame and — following Tolkien’s expert lead — allowed viewers to discover its secrets along with its sheltered characters, “Warcraft” unfolds like a feature-length version of a “Previously, on ‘Game of Thrones'” package, blitzing through the plot as though the movie’s only task was to remind viewers of a story they already knew.
There’s no denying that fans of the franchise will find more to enjoy here than newcomers, but while familiarity may help lessen the confusion of some plot details, no degree of goodwill for the games will compensate for the sloppiness of the storytelling. For a movie that mostly takes place in three generic locations, it’s almost impressive how poorly each scene connects to the next, as character motivations (and character identities) soon smudge into nonsense.
For a film that had the time and resources to pave over any potholes, the only logical explanation for a disaster of this magnitude is that everyone involved lost sight of what they were making. Perhaps “Warcraft” is an argument against the idea that fans are the best people to help shepherd their beloved properties to the screen; whereas many of the most incompetent recent blockbusters have been directed by untested special effects gurus, Jones has proven his bonafides. “Moon” and “Source Code” are the work of an intelligent filmmaker who has an innate gift for mining rich characters from high-concept premises. For someone so skilled to create something this bad, either he was overwhelmed by the scale of the project, or he was too invested in the lore to understand how it needed to be reimagined for an audience who may not share his knowledge or enthusiasm.
This is truly a depressing experience. It’s rare to feel such pity for a major studio movie, but watching “Warcraft” bend over backwards to set up a sequel is like watching a desperate paramedic apply CPR to someone who’s clearly been dead for hours. He’s gone. He’s gone. Let it go. Let the battle between orcs and humans end in a stalemate. Call off the fighting and implore both sides to return to their loved ones. Bad movies come and go — “Warcraft” is a tragedy.
“Warcraft” opens in theaters on Friday, June 10.