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Saving the world is not a one-man job.

Warcraft: The Beginning
(2016)

(SPOILERS) Warcraft: The Beginning (promises, promises) is surely exactly what the great unwashed (I know, it’s actually the other way round), pre-Lord of the Rings genre respectability, would have expected from a fantasy epic. Indistinct characters cast adrift in vast empty landscapes, engaging in mighty battles for dreary and/or impenetrably elusive reasons while magical incantations transpire portentously all around, but not terribly impressively. And the whole strung together on the slenderest of threads. Duncan Jones’ film is as deathly dull as ‘80s fantasy misfire Krull, but without the homemade personality that gives that picture, if not a free pass, then at least a mildly endearing rep.


The most curious aspect of Warcraft is not the fact of itself, but that it may even justify that The Beginning subtitle, mustering the appetite for a franchise based on receipts in China alone. But all it really illustrates is that the US doesn’t have the market cornered on making box office hits from bad movies. What is abundantly clear is that the curse of the video game adaptation is unlikely to be lifted any time soon. Treating a property (here) deadly seriously and reverently works no more in its favour than treating it crassly, not if you haven’t thrashed out a decent screenplay to start with, one that doesn’t rely on plot development via reams of lumpen exposition. Further still, if you do decide to go with that misbegotten script, it’s an idea to cast actors who can wrestle their characters and immobile dialogue into something resembling a scenario the viewer can give a toss about.


That’s maybe a bit unfair. Toby Kebbell (seemingly seized by bad choices of late, with the trio of Fantastic Four, this and the upcoming Ben-Hur, and so unlikely to have his motion capture casting cred repealed any time soon) gives good orc as Durotan, so much so that his fate is about the only surprising aspect of a movie you know isn’t going to end on any kind of resolution (that title again).


And Duncan Jones, whose idea it was for the plot to go the route it does (Sam Raimi was attached for a good while, and as reluctant as I am to invest in his judgement after the doldrums of Oz The Great and Powerful, if there’s one thing Warcraft would have benefited endlessly from, it’s great dollops of Bruce Campbell – this does, after all, feature a boomstick), is at least onto something in (apparently, I’ve never played it) following the route of the game and presenting the Orcs as every bit the characters the humans are (indeed, we kick off in their world).


But fidelity isn’t everything. They may work on the computer screen, but the design aesthetic of the orcs just doesn’t pass muster in motion picture form; something about the over-sized bodies and shrunken heads fails to register as feasible to the brain, and even eventual familiarity doesn’t make it more acceptable. It isn’t just the Orcs, though; there’s a general sense of over-pixelated everything. It’s a signal of how engrossed I was that I spent an inordinate amount of time quietly cogitating over how difficult it must be to savour a good meal with those dirty great, chipped tusks getting in the way.


In between the ungainly orcs and insubstantial humans (it’s a wonder they’re able to slay a single Orc, such is the disparity in size and strength) is Paula Patton’s “half breed”, cynically presented as a sexy semi-orc (as in, it’s the most evident sop to financiers’ concerns over audience accessibility; understandable, since they’re so damn ugly), although in terms of plot I guess there is potential, such as it is, in fashioning a potential bridge between worlds. The greater failing is that a green skinned woman clad in leathers is beyond a cliché, and Garona never surmounts that failing.


Still, as awkwardly ill-served by character and miscast as Patton is, she fares no worse than most of her fellow visible actors. Dominic Cooper is a dead loss as the wispy king, while Ben Schnetzer’s young wizard is closer to something out of the ’80s Dungeons and Dragons cartoon series than a sombre fantasy epic (it’s in his company that more typically flippant fantasy movie dialogue tends to surface).


The lead, though, is Travis Fimmel, arrestingly odd in Vikings, and here… he delivers exactly the same twitchy, wild-eyed shtick, but without anything remotely memorable character-wise to justify it. He’s even expected to throw out really awful dialogue like “Hey, clay face, over here!” when battling a great big golem. Jones presumably wanted Warcraft to speak for itself by casting actors who don’t overwhelm the “story”, but all he’s done is expose its paucity. The result is a bit like Godzilla a couple of years back; a promising young British director is promoted to the big leagues, but the very qualities he wielded on a smaller scale are rendered null and void in the process.


There are a few compensations. Daniel Wu is memorable both visually and vocally as orc warlock Gul’dan, with a rather neat knack for sucking the life force out of human victims as if he’s pulling on a thread. The magic material is the closest the picture comes to engaging, as the warfare, while competently staged, fails to ignite. Ben Foster’s human sorcerer, guardian Medivh, bearing a passing resemblance to a young Nicol Williamson as Merlin, but possessing none of the beguiling eccentricity, or the diction and dialogue to savour, is nevertheless the most interesting human character. There’s also Dalaran, a realm of mages (wielders of magic), but that desperately needs a dose of Hugo Weaving to liven it up. It comes to something when actors who normally make a strong impression like Clancy Brown and Callum Keith Rennie are left entirely unmemorable. Ruth Negga does her best, and Glenn Close has a sinister cameo, but the pickings are few and far between.


Even if the characters weren’t so lacking, Warcraft’s landscapes, cities and assorted creatures fail to move beyond the realm of approximately rendered concept art, so there’s little sense of a virtual world coming truly to life on cinema screens. There might be a vague message about power corrupting (and one might read into the orcs, passive to the pronouncements of their leader, devastating their own environment and then moving on to plunder pastures new, the dictates of the technological western world and its remorseless capacity for untapped resources), and refusing to allow hatred to be passed down from generation to generation, but it’s relatively feeble when set against the main takeaway; the warring parties’ common ground is the nobility of the warrior’s code, slaughter in an agreed and acceptable manner.


Can anyone crack the nut of a computer game at the core screenplay level? For some reason it seems nigh impossible. Perhaps it’s the removed/experiential barrier, once the player is deducted from the equation, that is too thorny to move past, like the ambivalently plotted portal here. It’s much easier to forgive egregious plotting when you’re distracted by having to interact with and fight stuff in the first person. Quality of game play can forgive a thousand narrative sins. So choosing to translate those thousand narrative sins diligently to the screen is never going to work out. Conversely, departing from the text didn’t do that earliest of game adaptations Super Mario Bros much good either; both it and Warcraft make for woefully oblivious bedfellows in banality.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

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