It’s been a long time since I really dove into the lore and history of the Warcraft series, but I have fond memories of the classic RTS games. I distinctly remember certain watery levels from Warcraft II, eagerly installing and playing Warcraft III on some of the lowest graphics settings, and trying to read up on the series’ history around the time of World of Warcraft’s launch, though I never played the preeminent MMORPG.
A lot of that has been forgotten, but I still remember the main cut and thrust of the story. That said, the opening of Warcraft: The Beginning is a whirlwind of confusion. There’s little but the barest of motivations from the film’s opening, as the clearly very powerful Gul’dan opens a portal and takes the first wave of the best orc warriors from the barren, dying planet of Draenor to the verdant splendour of Azeroth. What follows is a series of rapid character introductions in a kingdom hopping sequence that might be more befitting of a mid-film montage than the start of the film.
Part of the problem is that the film starts with a mystery, as the humans have no idea that the orcs are invading, let alone what an orc actually is. Instead of letting that simmer for a little while and establish a status quo to break, Warcraft races to solve it and have the two sides meet as soon as possible. It’s only really after this that the film settles into a slower rhythm and we get a chance to understand who the wide cast of characters are.
Durotan (Toby Kebbell) is probably the most easily relatable, as an orc chief who just wants to do right by his clan and his people. The film tries to show his side of the war regularly, but naturally focusses on the more numerous human leads quite a bit more. Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel) is his counterpart on the human side, but he’s quickly lumbered with a sidekick mage named Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer). There’s also King Llane Wrynn (Dominic Cooper), the ageing Guardian of Tirisfal, Medhiv (Ben Foster), the half-orc Garona (Paula Patton) and so on. It means that a lot of things that could have benefitted from a little more time are dealt with in a flash.
After over two decades of games and stories within the universe, there’s a huge lore for the film to draw upon, and the film naturally sticks with the game series’ origins. However, one thing that’s always stuck out in the games is a somewhat knowing sense of humour that’s full of little in jokes and asides. There’s a few nods here and there, the occasional touch of humour in the dialogue or in the middle of the several major fight sequences, and there were a few genuine laughs from those watching, but it lacked much of the snappiness of the best Marvel films and it often feels quite clumsy.
It does look excellent, though, with brilliantly realised character designs that really throw into stark repose the difference between the humans and orcs. Simply, the orcs tower over them, especially those infused with the magical macguffin that turns them green and drives the plot’s twists and turns, and that bears out in combat. Aside from the main characters, it’s rare to see a human knight get the best of an orc in the background. They tend to just knock them flying with ease.
This has clearly been a labour of love for Duncan Jones and many of the people involved, but it starts messily and never really comes together as a whole. There are a few moments that work really quite nicely, such as an uneasy and mistrustful meeting between the two sides, and it riffs on a number of classic Western motifs, but it’s not the game turned movie that fans would have hoped for.