Warcraft: The Beginning, 2016
Directed by Duncan Jones
Starring Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, Toby Kebbell, Ben Schnetzer, Robert Kazinsky, Clancy Brown, Daniel Wu, Ruth Negga, Anna Galvin
The peaceful realm of Azeroth stands on the brink of war as its civilization faces a fearsome race of invaders: orc warriors fleeing their dying home to colonize another. As a portal opens to connect the two worlds, one army faces destruction and the other faces extinction. From opposing sides, two heroes are set on a collision course that will decide the fate of their family, their people, and their home.
2016 is not only a big year for the comic book adaptation, it’s also a proving ground for the video game movie. Although the first one hit screens twenty-three years ago, we haven’t had a year in cinema history with four big releases from this rather derided sub-genre. Why video game fans haven’t had a “good” one yet is anyone’s guess. Many fans would point the finger to the fact very few video game movies are up to muster, while the filmmakers behind the adaptations will tell you that Hollywood has little faith in the concept and fans have too high expectations. With Hollywood looking for that future golden carrot for when (or if) the comic book movie well dries up, could video games be the next big thing? We’ve already seen the smaller-scale Ratchet & Clank (which didn’t do very well) and The Angry Birds Movie (which did a lot better), but how will Duncan Jones’ Warcraft: The Beginning – the first big blockbuster – do?
The Orcs have decided to leave their dying homeworld and use a magical gate to enter into a new one. But rather than make peace with their new neighbours, the Orcs decide to destroy everything in an attempt to take over. This does not sit well with King Llane Wrynn (Dominic Cooper) and his buddy Lothar (Travis Fimmel) who together with The Guardian (Ben Foster), a young mage named Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) and Orc-castaway Garona (Paula Patton), they must rid their world of this invasion. However not all is right within the Orc camp either, as recent father Durotan (Toby Kebbell) is creating a resistance that looks to challenge Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) and his evil magic.
Like a lot of fantasy movies, Warcraft: The Beginning throws you head first into this world and then requests that you try and keep up with its story. The first hour whizzes by as new characters are introduced left and right who all have their own backstories, wants, needs and desires and there’s enough plot to fill a few episodes of Game of Thrones. While this exposition – which makes up 80% of the dialogue – is broken up by some rather spectacular fighting scenes, it’s rather exhausting trying to keep up with everything. Watching Warcraft: The Beginning often makes you feel like your training for a marathon with an Olympic runner who isn’t interested in jogging at your pace.
This leads to the movie’s biggest problem, but it’s likely not from the script or development. Warcraft: The Beginning feels like it was a two and a half hour movie that has been cut down to fit within a two hour runtime. The conspiracy theorist in me would suggest that Jones presented his full cut of the movie to the studio who then felt very uncomfortable with releasing a 180-minute fantasy movie based on a niche video game and requested he trim it down to appease the masses. What this means is that nothing within Warcraft: The Beginning really sticks. Scenes run a rapid pace and the choppy editing removes a lot of impact which in turns hurts character development. We’re introduced to Lothar’s son early on but then we’re only given a handful of scenes with him to develop their relationship, which falls spectacularly flat. Similarly the Buddy Cop relationship with Lothar and Khadgar suffers from the pacing, as does the mentor/student relationship between him and The Guardian. Durotan and his tribe are given just enough time for their story to feel complete, but it falls under several other weighty plots including Garona finding acceptance.
Warcraft: The Beginning presents some big themes, but the runtime hurts every single one of them. Not only that but it also doesn’t allow for the scope and scale of this world to be fully realised. A character will say to another that they must travel to another part of this world and then in the very next scene they’re there. The towns, cities and villages may as well be down the road from each other as far as we, the audience, can tell and that really ruins a lot of the movie’s atmosphere. We should want to be immersed into this world, but the runtime doesn’t allow it. Furthermore we’re not given an avatar to view this world through. The classic example is Frodo in Lord of the Rings, who we use as our way into J.R. Tolkien’s landscape, but Warcraft: The Beginning doesn’t have their “Frodo”.
But it’s not all doom and gloom, because once you’re out of that first hour and you’re caught up to speed, Warcraft: The Beginning becomes a lot of fun. As mentioned earlier, the action sequences are fantastic and Jones’ incredible visual style – seen on smaller scales in Moon and Source Code – is brought into big budget life. He succeeds in bringing this world to life and it pops on screen. Some might take issue that because of the over-reliance on CGI, green screen and Motion Capture software that Warcraft: The Beginning looks little more than one long video game cutscene, but it’s hard to argue that it looks anything other than spectacular. You feel each and every blow delivered to the characters and its visceral nature is gripping, marred only by a lack of connectable characters. Not only that, but the motion capture work done by Kebbell, Wu, Clancy Brown and Robert Kazinsky is sublime and rivals the likes of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, King Kong and Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Fans of the video game series and those hoping for more films will revel in Jones’ ability to set up sequels to expand out this franchise while not distracting from the current film. There is more in the world of Warcraft (pun completely intended) to explore, but Jones puts this all in the background for fans to pick up on while regular Joes can just enjoy what’s on screen. Its commendable in this day and age that the franchise potential of the movie comes from the story and character rather than studio demands.
It certainly succeeds in being an exciting fantasy adventure romp (the first hour notwithstanding), but it doesn’t break any new boundaries for the subgenre. Overall the movie is hurt by its rushed runtime which feels like it needs to be much longer to allow for this scope and scale to be appreciated. Duncan Jones has been working on Warcraft: The Beginning for the better part of three years and its disappointing that the result is nothing short of ‘okay’. It’s a rather mediocre affair with some really stunning visuals. There’s a lot of creativity on display, but some fairly poor performances from most of the cast (Dominic Cooper in particular), rushed set pieces and a lack of scale really hold Warcraft: The Beginning back from breaking the so called ‘video game movie curse’.
Warcraft: The Beginning is the third video game movie released this year and the first one which is acting as a studio tentpole. Its box office performance will dictate the future of video game adaptations in Hollywood (along with Assassin’s Creed in December), but it certainly hasn’t struck a critical chord.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Luke Owen is the Deputy Editor of Flickering Myth and the co-host of The Flickering Myth Podcast and Scooperhero News. You can follow him on Twitter @ThisisLukeOwen and read his weekly feature The Week in Star Wars.