Going into WarCraft, I felt like I had some reason to be optimistic about Blizzard's first foray into the movie business.
Knowing Blizzard, I figured that they would be very protective of the style and lore that they've built up over the years. There was just no way that they would allow a film adaptation to be a disaster. After all, we're talking about the developer that killed a massive MMORPG before it even saw the light of day.
The finished film confirms many of my original suspicions - it is indeed extremely faithful to the source material. But that's not necessarily enough to make it a good movie.
WarCraft follows the Orc invasion of Azeroth that was chronicled in the original WarCraft: Orcs and Humans, joining Durotan (Toby Kebbell) as he and his clan cross over into the human world in order to escape their dying world. Along with him are his wife and child, who embody Durotan's desire to protect the future of his race from Gul'dan (Daniel Wu), who is willing to enslave the Orcs to chaos in order to gain more power.
Gul'dan skulks in the background for most of the movie, turning up when the story wants to drive home his sinister influence over the Orcs. His most effective scene comes during a conversation with Durotan's friend Orgrim Doomhammer (Robert Kazinsky), which takes place as Gul'Dan's casually devours a hapless human's soul like so many grapes. The Orcs in general are great, being fantastically detailed creatures who pop everytime they come on screen. Their interactions frequently feel more genuine than those of their human counterparts, as when Durotan casually pings Orgrim with a pebble as they sit looking down on the Orc encampment.
On the human side, Azeroth reacts to the invasion by summoning the kingdom's guardian, Medivh, who is portrayed as a slowly fraying mage by Ben Foster. He manages to be the most interesting of the humans, bringing a certain world weariness and Rasputinish madness to the story as he talks about the mistakes he's made. Foster does the best with the material that he has, but the writing doesn't do as much as it could to drive home Medivh's state of mind, mostly because it's stuffed so full of plotlines. The rest of the human characters fall into various fantasy archetypes - the noble king, the Aragorn-like warrior, the bookish mage. They are the foils for the Orcs, who get much more in the way of meaningful character development.
Much of the human side of the story is spent dealing with Garona (Paula Patton), whom they discover following an early encounter with the Orcs. Having been shunned by her kind, Garona is the obvious bridge between the two races, and perhaps the story's biggest weakness. She's set up to be a tragic figure, but her acceptance by the humans into their inner circle feels forced, as does her budding relationship (romance?) with the king. Ultimately, she has exactly one job to do in the plot, and everything that happens is in service of moving her from Point A to Point B so that it can happen.
It eventually comes down to a series of long, messy battles, none of which end up resolving much of anything. The WarCraft fan in me was actually kind of excited: "Hey! They're being faithful to the original game! Neat!" The pragamatic moviegoer in me, though, realized that the average viewer probably won't be able to make any sense of the tangled plot, nor will they be particularly satisfied by the obvious sequel hooks. WarCraft is the fantasy equivalent of a superhero origin story that can't resist cramming in as much lore as possible, then leaves everyone hanging at the end.
In the end, what works in the context of a videogame doesn't always work on film. The stylized look that works so well in the games ends up feeling cartoony and cheap when applied to a live-action film, which is the case with many of WarCraft's props and sets. The lore that feels epic when read in quest boxes and instruction manuals feels like Fantasy 101 on-screen. The human soldiers are most definitely recognizable as footmen from the games; but the more I looked at them, the more I wished that WarCraft had opted for a more traditional look for its knights. The source material giveth, and the source material taketh away.
Still, the film stops short of being outright poor. There are a lot of fantastic visual nods to the games, and the majority of the performances are on point. The battles work because the Orcs look so good, and because the film offsets the naturally insubstantial CG with some really meaty sound effects; though, alas, King Lane's climactic charge can't help but suffer when compared to the much more impressive work in Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings. It's a serviceable adaptation, which is to say that it's better than 99 percent of videogame films.
Ultimately, Blizzard got the WarCraft film that they probably wanted, which is to say that it's faithful enough to satisfy the diehards while being just good enough to warrant a sequel. Decent, but not up to their usual standard of quality. Those disappointed by WarCraft's first film foray should take heart, though. Everyone knows that WarCraft II was when the series really got good.
Developed with the fans in mind, WarCraft feels messy and overstuffed in a lot of respects. Nevertheless, it does a capable job of adapting Blizzard's universe to the big screen, particularly the Orcs. Ultimately, it's just good enough to warrant the sequel it spends a good chunk of time setting up; but those sequel hooks come at the expense of a satisfying conclusion to the story.