Warcraft feels like a bad date both parties are desperately trying to make the best of, smiling brightly through every lull in conversation and pretending an awkward hug was the totally optimal way to say good night. Movies being made from popular video game properties is a setup that, on paper, makes sense, but in practice turns out to be a chemistry-free matchmaking of talent, material, and form. There's a decades-long tradition of mediocre-to-atrocious versions of this, and Warcraft isn't the feature that's going to change that.
But it really seems like it should have been. Director Duncan Jones, who also wrote the screenplay with Charles Leavitt, pursued the long-in-the-works adaptation of the Blizzard video game series after Sam Raimi, who was originally attached, left. Jones, whose previous films include the lowish-budget breakout Moon and the Jake Gyllenhaal thriller Source Code, is a gamer himself. More importantly, he's an endearingly open and unabashed geek, the kind who'd treat a saga about warring orcs and humans, mages in high towers, and a green-glowing death magic called "the Fel" with all seriousness and no hint of nose-holding. If anyone could make a decent movie out of Warcraft's past-its-prime high fantasy universe, it should be Jones, an ideal banner-carrier for Hollywood's melding with Comic-Con culture.
Warcraft isn't decent. It isn't awful, either, though that would honestly be preferable — the sort of distinctive kamikaze train wreck whose spirit you admire. Instead, it comes across as a series of impersonal compromises made by talented people who've resigned themselves to the fact that major movies these days are more brand product than cinema.
It racks up its victories in what it doesn't do. It doesn't makes the clash between the humans of Azeroth and the orcs arriving through a mystical portal into a simplistic battle of good and bad guys. It doesn't use its main female character, the half-orc Garona (Paula Patton, emoting impressively around fang-y prosthetics), as an ornament or a damseled plot device. It doesn't allow all of its many characters to live to the end, which offers room for a few surprises.
But it also doesn't provide the audience with any reason to care about its central conflict or the reasons behind it. It attempts to pack two realms' worth of world building in along the sides of a full-speed-ahead story that kicks off with the invasion. The film begins with an orc chieftain named Durotan (performed via motion capture by Toby Kebbell) and his pregnant mate Draka (Anna Galvin) joining a war party that promptly charges through a portal opened by the life-force-hoovering orc Gul'dan (Daniel Wu), a warlock who is intent on leaving the clan's dying land behind and conquering a new one.
The humans — repped primarily by smirky warrior Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel, opting for an utterly bonkers spectrum of accents), King Llane Wrynn (Dominic Cooper), and Lady Taria (Ruth Negga) — notice that mysterious forces have been wiping out local villages and garrisons. Fledgling mage Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) insists it's time to call on Medivh (Ben Foster, easily the most giggle-inducing part of the cast), the kingdom's powerful, reclusive Guardian. By the time Durotan begins to question Gul'dan and the locale into which he's leading the orcs, Lothar and Khadgar have begun to suspect someone on their side has gone dark as well. If this sounds like a lot to absorb, it is.
Jones' previous movies were character-driven, despite their high-concept sci-fi nature. Moon was carried by the weight of Sam Rockwell's performance as a man slowly realizing the extent to which he's become a disposable cog in a ruthless corporate machine. Source Code did the same thing with Jake Gyllenhaal's soldier who is turned into an unwilling experimental recruit, desperately trying to will himself a way out of two seemingly dead-end realities. But Warcraft feels like it's battling with time (and itself) to establish its characters as anything other than fodder for its numbing fantasy melees.
An underdeveloped thread involving Lothar's young soldier son Clearly Doomed — er, Callan (Burkely Duffield) — is laughably predictable. The hint of romance between Lothar and Garona is allotted a minute during which the actors appear to be considering whether kissing each other is even possible when tusks are involved. Schnetzer, who's much better in the upcoming hazing drama Goat, is inert as a baby magician who goes from thinking he knows what's really happening to knowing he knows what's really happening. Foster is introduced doing some less-than-stately shirtless clay sculpting and only gets more ridiculous and incomprehensible from there.
It's only Garona, presented as a half-human, half-orc version of the "tragic mulatto," who manages heartfelt drama in being forced to choose between the clan who has alternately despised, enslaved, and protected her and the humans whom she doesn't know or trust. Patton works twice as hard as the rest of the cast to sell the character's pain and confusion, and through her you can glimpse the potential Jones must have seen in the film as a whole. But she's the strength in what's otherwise a centerless garble of orc-on-human skirmishes, orc-on-orc showdowns, betrayals, overload of mythology, and sequel seeding.
Warcraft treats its material with deep solemnity, but never makes the case for why it deserves such regard, why a movie version of this material means anything other than ditching gameplay in order to focus on a setting and characters that, in the context of the big screen, just feel like diluted Tolkien swirled with a little Game of Thrones. Warcraft isn't the first great video game movie, but it's one that makes you wonder what the point of such adaptations is in the first place, when they end up flattening so much of what makes gameplay appealing. What's left is something that doesn't seem like it needs to exist, or even really wants to — it's two hours' worth of a movie that's simply waiting for the right moment to ask for the check and head home.