It’s rare to see a film that fails on almost every level. Duncan Jones’ Warcraft is one of those films. Already seriously in the running to take the prize for Worst Movie of 2016, Warcraft may prove that the fabled video game adaption “curse” is so strong that it can bring even the most talented of young filmmakers to their knees.
Here directing as well as co-writing, Jones doesn’t bring to his third feature any of the passion he has shown in interviews and at press conferences towards the game which inspired this unholy creation. Jones probably really is the WOWer he claims to be, but the material just doesn’t seem like a good fit for him as a filmmaker. Jones’s previous projects, Moon and Source Code, were lean and moody psychological sci-fi, whereas Warcraft is a dumb, lumbering, colorful fantasy epic. In the hands of Jones, before now a somber and introspective director, a film that could have been at least mindlessly entertaining is unexpectedly dour.
It’s also lazily put together. The action sequences are a jumble, and the mixture of accents—British, American, Irish, whatever it is that Australian Travis Fimmel is attempting—makes for a constantly jarring sound melange. The special effects certainly don’t look like they were approved by a man who thought of this as a passion project. FX-wise, Warcraft is a clumsy step backward from Avatar (which, don’t forget, was made seven years ago). Jones’ heavily CGI’d film instead somewhat ironically often resembles a lengthy video game cutscene. Speaking of Avatar: As much as James Cameron’s film was criticized for its generic plot, it at least established its alien environment perfectly well, something Warcraft never manages to do.
Vaguely, it seems we’re in a combative Lord of the Rings-type world of men, orcs, elves, dwarves and wizards, but there’s never a clear sense of place or history. We never totally get why the orcs of Draenor are fighting the men of Azeroth, never truly learn what the mysterious soul-draining energy known as the Fel is, never fully get an explanation of what human grand wizard Medivh’s (Ben Foster) scheme is. To a World of Warcraft fan, it perhaps makes perfect sense, but to an ordinary cinemagoer, discovering all this for the first time, it’s just gobbledygook. If this all sounds like material that an actor would have a difficult time selling, then you’re absolutely right.
It’s not exactly surprising that the Warcraft cast have zero chemistry—for starters none of them are even on the same page. Fimmel and Paula Patton, as human hero Lothar and his half orc/half human love interest Garona, are plain dreadful, sharing between them the conviction and acting ability of not even one whole performer. Dominic Cooper appears barely present throughout as human King Llane, while Ben Foster resolutely remains the most intense person in the room and, this being a fantasy movie in which he fires lightning bolts from his hands, ends up being unintentionally hilarious as a result.
Ben Schnetzer and Ruth Negga, both of whom are undoubtedly going to do great things, are respectively miscast as a sorcerer’s apprentice and Cooper’s Queen. The only actor to emerge with anything resembling dignity is poor, franchise-less Toby Kebbell, always the best thing in dud blockbusters failing to go to series (Prince of Persia, Fantastic Four, now likely Warcraft). As our sensitive orc hero Durotan, the mo-capped Kebbell doesn’t exactly give a moving performance—none of the characters are developed enough for you to care about any one of them—but there is at least a sense that he’s made of flesh and blood, and not papier-mâché like everyone else.
Jones has insisted his original two hour, forty minute cut of Warcraft was a more developed experience, with characters further fleshed-out, but it’s difficult to imagine the film being any more pleasurable when the overall product is this ropey. It looks cheap, like a made-for-TV movie from SyFy, with obvious sets, awkward actor/CG-environment interaction and Paula Patton “transformed” into an orc-human hybrid via the magic of green body paint. It’s a $160 million movie that can’t successfully transport you anywhere, because you’re constantly aware of how fake everything is. Warcraft may well be the biggest waste of studio money since The Chronicles of Riddick.
Mercifully, the projected box office for and general buzz surrounding Warcraft is so bad that the chance of any sequels coming to fruition is low. With his newfound clout, Jones plans to move back to (relatively) small-scale science fiction next, and finally make his long-gestating future-noir Mute. Hopefully Jones will then resume being an interesting filmmaker, but even so, Warcraft may forever haunt him as his very own Dune: a great, miscalculated failure that nonetheless taught the director to stick to his own brand of weird.
Director: Duncan Jones
Writer: Duncan Jones, Charles Leavitt
Starring: Ben Foster, Paula Patton, Travis Fimmel, Dominic Cooper, Toby Kebbell
Release Date: June 10, 2016