It was surprising to see Duncan Jones’ video game tie-in receive some positive notices in the UK before being ripped to shreds a week or two later by bloodthirsty American critics, and the polarity of opinion was a major factor in persuading me to go and watch Warcraft: The Beginning before it disappeared from cinemas. It’s one of those blockbusters – like the recent Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice – where critical opinion doesn’t seem to have affected box office takings all that much, and I guess if some people like it and some people hate it then theoretically it should be interesting enough to take a punt on, or so I thought beforehand. The game on which the film is based is, of course, hugely popular, and because of the anticipation and loyalty of an existing fanbase the negative reviews were never going to permantly hamper the film’s success, although I do wonder what kind of damage the sheer number of angry missives filed will do to the career of Jones, a relatively-green and – up to this point, at least – interesting filmmaker. Universal’s shareholders are laughing all the way to the bank regardless, following a $200m opening weekend in China. (Those who expressed doubts as to whether we’ll be seeing a follow-up to this film because of its fairly poor showing in traditionally-strong western markets are looking a little bit foolish now; it has made $370m and counting at the time of writing.)
Your taste for Warcraft: The Beginning will largely depend on your general enjoyment of/tolerance for fantasy, and all its inherent trappings. As you’d expect this is a film that’s packed full of mages, bulky green orcs on the warpath, brave and honourable humans tasked with defending grand medieval-style cities, legions of dwarves, wise and ancient elves, giant winged beasts and so on and so forth, while there’s also a raft of in-world info – folklore, terminology, placenames, etc. – to take on board that could easily put off any newcomers. I must admit to wearily rolling my eyes as all the talk of ‘Draenor’ and ‘Azeroth’ and ‘portals’ and ‘fel magic’ began to stack up, but to their credit Jones, co-writer Charles Leavitt and story writer Chris Metzen ensure that the basic premise of the plot is simple enough for anyone to follow: really it just boils down to orcs battling humans, and the rest is little more than window dressing designed to create a sense of place and a fully-functioning, pre-existing world. We’ve seen this before, of course, but the way in which Jones and Leavitt attempt to distance this film from others that have gone before it – particularly the recent game-changing Tolkien adaptations – is that it’s not merely a straightforward fight between good and evil, and both sides have entirely legitimate motivations for their actions, as well as a shared mix of sympathetic heroes and duplicitous bad guys (though the eventual distillation to one rotten apple each is a weak old trope). I guess if anything we’re supposed to side with the humans, because a) hey, they’re just like us, and b) the orcs are the invading aggressors here, but to be honest the human actors are so uniformly terrible I began to root for the massive green warbastards and took great pleasure from seeing all those giant green fists pounding into puny human skulls and snapping human necks. Is that weird?
Despite the writers’ attempts to make Warcraft: The Beginning stand out from the pack via the internal wranglings of its warring factions, I’m afraid it doesn’t really distinguish itself in other ways. Even though the budget for the film was in the region of $160m it looks and feels like a cheap Lord Of The Rings knock-off, and it suffers badly from a combination of poor writing, sub-par acting and ropey CGI, which matters a lot when effects shots are as crucial and as omnipresent as they are here. It’s also a film that highlights just how safe, predictable and uninspiring fantasy blockbusters have become during the past decade, especially when compared with a TV show like Game Of Thrones; the timing is unfortunate but I watched the latter’s recent Battle Of The Bastards episode a day before watching Warcraft: The Beginning, and found Duncan Jones’ war sequences to be lumpen, unimaginative and dreary by way of comparison; there’s little in the way of weight or consequence to the events that transpire near the end of this film, and a lack of exciting choreography, with the big fight petering out into a mass of badly-defined figures stabbing, hacking and slashing at one another. Granted the format differs between TV and film, and TV shows today are able to slowly build their worlds and manipulate the viewer into feeling all sorts of different things when characters die or take big decisions, but that’s hardly something beyond the power of a filmmaker working within the fantasy genre and it doesn’t excuse the fact that Jones has turned in a franchise-builder that seems completely averse to playing around with the expectations of its audience, and which utterly fails in terms of making you care about anyone or anything within its world. Admittedly there’s plenty of evidence of collaborative visual imagination here, but otherwise the whole thing is as pedestrian and as predictable as they come; the characters you expect to die end up dying, the characters you expect to live carry on living, the characters you expect to be duplicitous are duplicitous, ad nauseam. Although the huge profit will ensure that some of the humans and orcs (and the world they inhabit) will return to the big screen sooner rather than later, I don’t think I’ll be following their dull journey any further.
Directed by: Duncan Jones.
Written by: Duncan Jones, Charles Leavitt. Story by Chris Metzen.
Starring: Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, Toby Kebbell, Ben Schnetzer, Ruth Negga, Anna Galvin, Daniel Wu.
Cinematography: Simon Duggan.
Editing: Paul Hisrch.
Music: Ramin Djawadi
Running Time: 122 minutes.