Some years ago, maybe around 2010, I recall standing in my den looking over my wife’s shoulder while she was playing a game on the computer. I asked what she was playing; “World of Warcraft,” she said. On the screen was a character dressed in white seated on the back of an ostrich with a metal tailpipe sticking out of its hind-quarters, riding furiously (or as furiously as an ostrich with a tailpipe can ride) to somewhere, obviously to do something. Whatever it was, there seemed to be some urgency to get there though I’m not 100% sure that my wife knew where she was going since she kept repeatedly referring to an onscreen map that looked, to me, as confusing as the schematic for the average household dishwasher. I nodded politely and just said “Cool. What do you want for dinner?”
I bring this up only to illustrate that this is the beginning, middle and end of my experience with “World of Warcraft.” I am not an online gamer though I’m not unfamiliar with the process. I’ve been through at least two incarnations of Star Wars (of which the most memorable moment occurred when my character got stuck in the bushes during a firefight) and I learned enough to know that it required far more patience and time then I have to devote. I’m not damning the process, but I have other things to do.
Knowing virtually nothing about “World of Warcraft” save for the presence of Ostriches who require tailpipes, I believed myself to be a test case for the big screen incarnation. Can the lore of this enterprise be translated to the uninitiated? Does it tell a functional story that doesn’t require hours of prep-work? Let’s put it this way, there is no way on Earth that the video game could possibly be as listless and dull as this movie. If it is, I pity those who have spent hours and hours in its company.
Warcraft is a pretty sour experience, made worse by the fact that I’m not 100% sure that the movie is actually finished. No kidding, there are scenes in this movie where the computer effects look like a test run. Some characters are fully human while others are CG with flesh and skin. There are some that seem like a badly rendered early draft. Example, there’s a baby Orc which is seen cradled in its father’s hands. The baby moves and squirms like a cartoon, but the father looks better rendered. Then he meets human beings who look like you and me. The effect is distracting.
What really disappoints me is that the movie is in the hands of Duncan Jones, a director whose work I have come to admire. He made the terrific 2009 adventure Moon, the movie in which Sam Rockwell is trapped millions of miles from Earth with a clone of himself and with a robot voiced by Kevin Spacey. And he made Source Code with Jake Gyllenhaal is stuck in a time-loop in which he must figure out how to stop an explosion on a train over and over and over. Both of these films were creative, challenging and fun, but what happened with Warcraft? Jones seems buried alive by this material as if the brand was too precious to give any creative juice.
The movie thumps and grumbles along with enormous battle scenes that are so badly mismanaged that it is difficult to tell what is actually happening. There is a lot of noise, there is clanging and banging and yelling but there’s never a sense of orientation. There’s never a moment when you get the sense of battle strategy as you would need in a video game. If you’ve engaged in the game then you know that it is designed to give you the experience of control, of understanding movement and elements of power. Why is that absent from the movie? Apparently since you’ve paid to see a movie with a brand-name, you will settle for something that is less engaging mentally and more on par with someone jingling keys in your face. You deserve better.
When the movie isn’t romping and stomping on the battlefield we get a yawn-inducing half-told story that I was only half-interested in. It begins with an Orc warrior (is there any other kind?) named Durotan (Toby Kebbell) who has a pregnant wife named Draka (Anna Galvin) who are forced to leave their world through a portal that so resembles the Stargate that I think somebody may in for a tremendous lawsuit. Spat out the other side, they find themselves in Azeroth, a place so green and hill-infested that it might as well be crawling with Hobbitses. Azeroth is, of course, controlled by humans who don’t cotton to these outsiders . . . or othersiders in their neck of the woods.
With motivations that I’m not really sure I completely understood, the Orcs attack the humans over control of this land. The human clan is led by Lothar (Travis Fimmel) a knight who is as much fun as hand sanitizer. He’s dedicated to his king and queen, but Durotan’s questions the motivations of the warlock Gul’dan (Danial Wu) who wants ultimate power and has a nasty habit of killing people with magic by draining their lifeforce.
Gul’dan’s counterpart on the human side is Medivah, a wizard played in a bit of bizarre casting by Ben Foster. If you know Foster from 3:10 to Yuma or any of his other villain roles, then you know he’s the master of the evil burn. He tries and tries to bring some of that sizzle to this role, but his intentions are buried amid all the noise. His role is diminished down to essentially driving the getaway car, meaning that his function is to transport the characters from place to place with chants and blue glowies.
Since the Orcs provide the muscle and Foster provides the magic, we must also have a bit of sexploitation and that comes from a demeaning role for Paula Patton as Garona, a half-human, half-orc who is being held prisoner, apparently by the guys who run Maxim magazine. Her entire role is to look sexy and pouty while bound in chains and tattered clothing. With this, and her role in Adam Sandler’s The Do-Over I might not be out of line in suggesting to Ms. Patton that she seek new representation.
Added to that there’s a subplot involving a human mage named Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) and some business involving a purple room. Plus, there’s an appearance by a silly-looking clay statue that comes to life, and there’s at least a hour of human and Orc beating the snot out of each other on the battlefield, all the while the movie borrows and steals from Lord of the Rings in ways that, again, I think are ripe for a lawsuit.
The spectacle of Peter Jackson’s great epics ring in the ears of anyone who chooses to sit through Warcraft. If that series felt robust and full of magic and life and energy, this movie feels like warm tap water. It seems to have been made by people too busy trying to sell a brand than make an engaging movie. If you’ve been to your local retailer recently and attend this movie, then you can tell that the intent here had little to do with making movies so much as begin another brand like LOTR or “Game of Thrones.” But no one here seems willing to do the actual work. What’s on the screen is the bare minimum. Actually, it’s less than the bare minimum. The story, the characters, the action, the special effects, they all seem undone here. They’re half-realized in a movie that gives you far less then you are probably willing to give it. Maybe the movie should have started with Tailpipe Ostrich. That, at least, I can say I haven’t seen before.