Film adaptations of computer games have tended to be failures. Too often, filmmakers have adapted well known franchises but failed to help them transition from one medium to the other. This year, there are two noteworthy computer game adaptations helmed by noteworthy directors. 2016, it seemed, could be the year that Hollywood finally got computer game adaptations right.
At the end of the year we have Justin Kurzel’s Assassin’s Creed to look forward to, but for now we have Duncan Jones’ adaptation of the Warcraft series, which began life as a real-time strategy game and later morphed into World of Warcraft, the biggest and most popular MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) yet released. As a fan of Jones’ two previous films – Moon and Source Code – and as someone who has logged a decent amount of play time with the Warcraft games, I had higher hopes for this film than I might have done otherwise.
The result, I’m both relieved and afraid to say, is a mixed bag. Relieved, because there are things in Warcraft (subtitled ‘The Beginning’ in some regions) that are promising; and afraid, because it also falls into many of the traditional traps of this kind of adaptation.
The story is set in Azeroth, a peaceful world into which is brought an army of warmongering orcs led by the villainous Gul’dan (Duncan Wu), who has harnessed the power of Fel magic (which draws its power from the taking of life). Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), as commander of the armies of Stormwind, must help King Wrynn (Dominic Cooper), protect the humans’ lands and find the source of the evil magic.
Duncan Jones and his design team have done a pretty good job translating the look of the games onto the big screen – the orcs are appropriately massive and smashy (but also with the potential for nobility and calm) and the armour and landscapes look the part, even if the whole thing is very CGI-heavy. To some extent, I also felt that the feel of the games was there, although that may simply be down to my familiarity with some of the characters. I can see, however, that a complete newcomer might be bamboozled by some of the fantasy vocabulary. That is not a criticism of the story itself, but more the script and the way it delivers it. The film does its best to be accessible to a mainstream audience, but is repeatedly undercut by thinly explained lore and, in some cases, characters without proper introductions. The structure doesn’t help either. The beginning of the film introduces a whirlwind of new locations, characters and concepts, not all of which are adequately explained. So while the film tries to be approachable, it simultaneously holds its audience at a distance with its sometimes jumbled storytelling.
The performances are a similarly mixed bag. Travis Fimmel, leading his first film of this scope, does a pretty good job as Lothar, although his performance, which is pitched between dashing, heroic and slightly unhinged, feels a little like it could’ve used a bit more explanation. Dominic Cooper, as the king, hardly gets enough dialogue to make any kind of impact, and isn’t given any meaningful scenes with his family or friends to make his role really take hold. As the much talked about ‘guardian’, Ben Foster is also sold short by the script, making an important character feel muddled, while Ben Schnetzer, to his credit, develops the initially annoying character of Khadgar, a young and talented mage, into a decent screen presence. The orcish side of things benefits from two of the strongest characters: Paula Patton, as a “half-breed” orc named Garona, is effective, overcoming the character’s lack of real backstory to make an impact, and Toby Kebbel gives an excellent motion-captured performance as noble Durotan, who is at odds with Gul’dan’s schemes.
In the end, despite the flaws, this is one of the better computer game adaptations, even if that may be damning with faint praise. Jones holds all the parts together, just about, and the things that work are strong enough to leave an impression. The action is hefty and well done, and there is a pleasing respect for characters on both sides of the conflict, which mirrors the story in the games. The plot, which has changed a little from the source material, is told in an overly muddled way, but enough of it comes through to make for a watchable, if uneven, action film.