The science-fiction chamber piece Moon was so good that it seemed its director, Duncan Jones, might become known for something other than being David Bowie’s son. Warcraft: the Beginning, based on the online role-playing phenomenon that had up to 12 million players at its height, makes one altogether less hopeful. Until there is a film of Tetris or KerPlunk, no big-screen game adaptation will be able to count me among its target audience. Even so, a movie version of anything, be it a book, play or video game, should be comprehensible to viewers with no knowledge of the original entity. The Pirates of the Caribbean series was adapted from a theme-park ride and that still managed to make sense. Warcraft: the Beginning – don’t you just love that optimistic subtitle? – is likely to be unintelligible to anyone who hasn’t spent their lives tenderly caressing a console.
The action takes place in two worlds, human and orc, both of which are rendered with the cheapest-looking CGI and crummiest sets ever to have reached the screen. (When someone says, “It’s good to see trees again,” you’re tempted to laugh. Only in an infant-school Nativity might those pass for trees.) The humans are divided into those with RSC accents, such as the King (Dominic Cooper) and his Queen (Ruth Negga), and the rest, including the warrior Anduin (Travis Fimmel). “That was cheery,” Anduin will say after a bleak anecdote. Or: “That went well,” after something didn’t. There’s no beginning to his wisecracks.
Then there are the orcs. No, not the Lord of the Rings orcs. These ones have teeny-weeny heads and overdeveloped bodies, as though they’ve disastrously misjudged their weight-training regime, while their jutting lower incisors indicate that orc dentistry is at the rudimentary stage. Some of the orcs are good natured, such as Duratan (Toby Kibbell), whose wife is expecting. When the baby arrives stillborn, the life force is sucked out of a nearby fawn and used to revive the infant. Bad luck, Bambi.
Other orcs are proper mardy. Take Gul’dan (Daniel Wu), who is leading his savage army through a portal into the human world. Who will protect mankind? The “Guardian”, Medivh (Ben Foster) – a staff-carrying wizard who has crackling balls of electricity. Well, it takes all sorts.
There’s also a young pretender in town: Khadgar (the likeable Ben Schnetzer), an upstart magician who challenges Medivh on the subject of the Fel, a force that has the power to corrupt entire worlds. “Leave the Fel to me,” says Medivh, setting fire to all of Khadgar’s research on the matter. Possibly Medivh is a double agent. Green lasers zap from his eyes and he keeps taking a dip in his font of electricity, which swirls and fizzes with psychedelic colours that suggest he has overdone it with the
bath bombs from Lush.
This genre enjoyed its peak in the 1980s with gory, raucous trash such as Conan the Barbarian and The Sword and the Sorcerer. Those films had outbursts of loopy fun – men turning into snakes, walls built of writhing faces, triple-bladed swords. Yet the mood in Warcraft is gloomy, the colour palette muddy and the aesthetic a bit Pan’s People. I swear I saw dry ice wafting across the set at one point.
There are hints here and there of an admirable diplomatic sensibility. Hope is represented by those characters who belong to two worlds or races. The Queen, who is black, and Anduin, who is white, are siblings. Khadgar is torn between alchemy and a normal life. And the climactic battle, as well as the future of peace, hinges on Garona (Paula Patton), who is half-orc, half-human. But these ideas aren’t finessed. They just sit there amid the Christmas-cracker philosophy: “From light comes darkness. From darkness light.” Profound, eh?
The film starts out being narrated by Duratan but by the end it’s difficult to know whose perspective we’re following. Jones can’t even find a point of visual interest in the frame. His compositions are all over the place, so the viewer never knows where to look. I spent most of the movie wondering what the opposite was of eye-catching. Whatever it is, that’s Warcraft.
This article appears in the 01 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, How men got left behind