This feels strange to say, but I almost would have preferred if Warcraft were worse than it is.
Contrary to what you might believe based on the thrashing it has taken from critics, Warcraft isn't a complete trainwreck. Don't misunderstand: It's not good. But there are moments where its true potential shines through — brief glimpses of the intriguing blend of characters, plot beats and pitch-perfect high fantasy setting that have turned the original Warcraft strategy series and its massively multiplayer spinoff World of Warcraft into an internationally beloved video game franchise.
And the movie is all the more painful for offering those rare flashes of what should have been.
Going back to the subtitle of the 1994 original Warcraft game, the film follows two sides of a fantasy conflict: orcs and humans. Though they intersect in a few important moments, each side has their own heroes, villains and plot twists. The orcs, led by the evil warlock Gul'dan (Daniel Wu), leave behind their dead planet and invade the world of Azeroth through a giant portal fueled by the blood of innocents. On the human side, stoic knight Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel) must rally the troops to defend their capital of Stormwind as the orcish hordes threaten to overrun it.
Warcraft never really takes the time to get viewers invested
If there's enough high fantasy mumbo-jumbo in that last paragraph to turn you off, you should stay far away from Warcraft. The film fully embraces its source material, for better and worse. Within 10 minutes of the movie starting, it's already throwing dozens of strange character names, epic locations and other bits of terminology at you.
I wouldn't necessarily consider this a problem so much as an inevitability, except for one issue: Warcraft never really takes the time to get viewers invested in the characters. The closest it comes to success is with Durotan (Toby Kebbell), the noble leader of the Frostwolf clan of orcs, and his pregnant mate Draka (Anna Galvin). The film actually opens with these two lying in bed, soaking in the final moments of quiet together before the invasion begins. It's a little awkward, as most viewers will still be coming to terms with the heavy CGI makeover the actors have received, but it does a good enough job humanizing these characters and introducing those unfamiliar with Warcraft to the concept that orcs are not just mindless bad guys.
Things are not so good on the human side. Fimmel's Lothar is a powerfully boring character. As he struggles with reigning in his overeager son Callan (Burkely Duffield), protecting the human king Llane (Dominic Cooper) and falling predictably in love with the half-orc Garona (Paula Patton), Fimmel ironically fails to deliver the humanity on display during Draka and Durotan's scenes. Where the orc protagonists seem to be trapped in a real moral dilemma with huge stakes and no easy answers, we're seemingly meant to care about what's happening with the humans ... well, just because they're human.
This may be my pro-Horde bias showing, but I had a lot of trouble really getting invested in the human side of Warcraft's conflict. And that's a fairly serious problem, since the movie spends quite a bit more than half of its runtime with the larger human side of the cast.
we're meant to care about the humans ... well, just because they're human
Part of the reason humans get more attention is simple logistics. The orcs are new to Azeroth, and they have one war camp, albeit one that is quickly expanding as they burn down human villages. The humans, however, are but one faction of the Alliance, a loosely banded together council representing all the known races and nations of Azeroth. What few glimpses of the wider world of Warcraft we receive come from humans.
As with everything else in Warcraft, these moments are hit and miss. There are some real clunkers, like when King Llane summons a council of Alliance leaders to ask for support in the war against the horde. The dwarves, mages and elves that make up the other nations refuse to help ... for ... some reasons that are not terribly well explained. (Inexplicably, in the film's climactic battle, the humans are still shown using Dwarven pistols even though the dwarves seemed firmly against supplying arms earlier. Whoops!)
On the other hand, there are scenes like runaway mage Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) visiting the magic floating city of Dalaran. While the deus ex machina plot beat that happens there is laughable, the city itself is one of the film's greatest moments of spectacle, of the kind it sorely needed more of. Dalaran looks incredible, and especially for those who have visited it in World of Warcraft, it's stunning to see it represented on screen so splendidly.
The visuals, across the board, are Warcraft's strongest suit. For as much shit as the movie's first trailers received for overly relying on CG, that concern melted away for me within the first 15 minutes or so. By the time humans are regularly in the same frame as orcs, I was fully immersed in the world and did not find myself distracted by the non-human characters. On the contrary, I regularly had to remind myself that the animation I was witnessing was not just a human actor.
This is one point where director Duncan Jones deserves praise. If you've seen his previous films (Moon and Source Code), you know that this guy understands how to make movies look pretty. While Warcraft is on a hugely different scale than either of his previous efforts, Jones' love for the source material shows through in how the film is framed: its sweeping aerial shots of battle, its wide-angle views of Azeroth's gorgeous vistas, even its moments when it gets down in the muck, letting you witness the war up close.
In fact, Warcraft is at its best when it's just focusing on visuals and not on characters. The action sequences are, if not groundbreaking in any way, at least entertaining and well-shot. When orcs and humans clash, especially in the climactic battle, it comes across like, well, something out of a video game — and I absolutely mean that as praise. The fights are like extended versions of World of Warcraft's beloved CG videos that are created for each new expansion. They only fall flat when they drop the action for drama, as in a death scene midway through the film that was meant to be stirring and dramatic and provide motivation for one of the heroes, but mostly just left me speechless at how silly it was.
Drama may be Warcraft's biggest enemy. As in 2015's horrendous Fantastic Four, Warcraft seems to have missed the memo that summer blockbuster genre movies are allowed to be fun and funny. It's self-serious to a fault, constantly hammering in how awful and terrible the war is in a way that makes it real difficult to actually sit back and enjoy watching it. Levity slips through in a few moments, but it's always quickly deflated by forced gravitas. Schnetzer's Khadgar is one of the few characters given to jokes rather than speaking every line with grave earnestness. Too bad that Schnetzer's lines are often dead-on-arrival bombs like when he enters a massive library and proclaims, "I never knew this many books existed!"
If Jones deserves praise for how Warcraft looks, he deserves equal criticism for the writing (he co-wrote the film with Charles Leavitt) and especially how it all comes together in the final theatrical cut. Warcraft has no sense of pacing and regularly jumps from scene to scene without providing viewers an anchor — any hints to understand why each scene matters, how it contributes to the overall picture that is forming, why they should care about any of this. These choices would be bad in any film, but for one that's asking audiences to buy into this fairly complicated, goofy fantasy world, it's a killer mistake. The average moviegoer who doesn't know or care about Warcraft already is just as likely to leave the theater unable to remember the names of any of the characters, or to fully comprehend just what the hell was happening in the plot.
As soon as negative critical reception for Warcraft started pouring in, Blizzard's marketing machine switched directions on the film. It is, they would have you believe, a movie made by and for fans of Warcraft. Of course critics wouldn't understand!
I'm sure Blizzard is right about this to some degree. The hardest of hardcore Warcraft fans are going to find something to appreciate in the nostalgia on offer here. They'll get enough satisfaction out of the thin dusting of magic that's sprinkled throughout the film. But I don't think it will be enough for everyone. For me, as someone who's been playing Warcraft games for over two-thirds of my life, Warcraft was just good enough to make me aware of what could have been — and just bad enough to make me despair that it wasn't.