See, Peter Jackson is why we can't have nice things. It may no longer be possible for anybody to make another epic fantasy film full of orcs and elves and knights without it being compared to The Lord of the Rings. Even one such as Warcraft, which has its own universe, rich mythology, and fan base in the millions, can fully escape the shadow of Tolkien. It hovers over the CGI-heavy swords 'n sorcery flick like the Eye of Sauron, making it difficult for the film to strike out on an unfamiliar path.
Warcraft is obviously based on the bestselling MMORPG, to the initiated that's a massive role-playing video game, and every bit of its stunning special effects is a nod to Blizzard's meticulously designed fantasy environments. Fans of the game will recognize some of the game's most popular characters, landscapes, and tribal factions itching for all-out war. Directed by Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code), an admitted player of the game, the film is best when he's free to indulge in the gigantic battles that are the franchise's trademark. You can sense the fun he's having as thousands of orcs crowd the screen ready for war, met by an equal number of armored humans itching for a fight. When all of that comes together Warcraft can be an absolute blast.
When things slow down, however, the poor script and thinly-drawn characters are lost in all of the green-screened shine and polish. The story is a messy amalgamation of threads pulled from the game's various installments, resembling a chapter in the solo campaign mode. Under the questionable leader of the dark mage Gul'Dan (Daniel Wu, totally unrecognizable), the Orcs have seen their lands wither and die. With no place else to go, Gul'Dan uses the life force their captives to power a portal to the human realm, where they will plunder it in a similar fashion...after killing everyone, of course. This does not sit well with tribal chieftain Durotan (Toby Kebbell, underneath all that Orc muscle and fangs), who simply wants to keep his wife and newborn son out of harm.
Catching wind of the Orc horde's arrival in the land of Azaroth are the humans under the watchful rule of King Wrynn (Dominic Cooper, out of place), who turns to his knight protector Lothar (Travis Fimmel) and Merlin-esque mage Medivh (Ben Foster) for a defensive strategy. But there's more at play than any of them can know, exposed by clumsy-yet-brave upstart wizard Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer). Surprisingly, the humans don't get nearly the attention as their Orc-ish counterparts, from a visual or character standpoint. While their armor and weapons are shiny and gloriously adorned, the only one on any kind of emotional journey would be Khadgar, as he attempts to prove himself worthy of the mantle of "Guardian". The most complete arc would actually go to the lovely Paula Patton as the Orc/human half breed Garona. It explains why Patton looks more like herself than the other monstrous Orcs, although the green paint and stubby fangs she's given are pretty unimpressive compared to her CGI counterparts.
An impressive amount of detail is afforded to the design of each individual Orc; from the battle scars on their arms to the piercings in their teeth. The land of Azaroth, on the other hand, is a patchwork of generic fantasy landscapes with few that stand out. If a hobbit from Middle Earth came strolling through looking for second breakfast, you'd be forgiven for expecting it. While this is fine when embroiled in a vs. matchup on your computer console, a Warcraft movie should have a distinct flavor that never quite materializes.
In the works for years even before Jones came aboard, hopes were that Warcraft would be the first truly great video game adaptation. That's a ton of pressure to put on any director, and while Jones doesn't quite live up to those lofty expectations, the game's avid base will likely fall under its spell.
Rating: 3 out of 5