Entertainment·MOVIE REVIEW

Warcraft bludgeons moviegoers with its epic ambitions, says Eli Glasner

Call it the battle of the director versus the video game. Duncan Jones' new movie attempts to bring the pleasures of the Warcraft to big screen, but the film hammers the audiences with its vast visuals and sprawling story.

Blockbuster video game's movie adaptation has a sprawling story sure to overwhelm newbies

Travis Fimmel appears as Commander Anduin Lothar left, and Paula Patton as Garona in Warcraft. Based on the massively popular Blizzard video game, the film is packed with garish visuals and epic ambition, says CBC's Eli Glasner. (Universal Pictures/Associated Press)

Following the feathered fury of Angry Birds, Warcraft is the latest video-game adaptation to make the leap to the big screen.

Based on the Warcraft series of video games — best known for the multiplayer online game World of Warcraft (WoW) — and shot in Vancouver, the film takes us into a medieval world filled with mages, orcs, flying beasts and noble knights.

With a visual scheme that lies somewhere between Iron Maiden album covers and airbrushed van art, director Duncan Jones presents a film packed with garish visuals and epic ambition.

The story revolves around the battle between the orcs and the humans of Azeroth. The former is a race of massive, Hulk-like humanoids forced to flee their dying world. Their sinister warlock leader (and we know he's sinister because he has spooky, glowing green eyes) has a plan to use a portal to invade Azeroth. But Durotan, a wise orc chieftain, sees the how their leader's dark magic is corrupting his people and decides to seek another way.

Orc chieftain Durotan (at left, voiced by Toby Kebbell) and Orgrim (voiced by Rob Kazinsky) appear in a scene from Warcraft. (Universal Pictures/Associated Press)

On the human side, Anduin Lothar leads the charge to repel the invaders. Travis Fimmel plays the generic knight with can-do spirit and a look borrowed from the Harrison Ford School of Scowling.

He's joined by Ben Schnetzer as young wizard school dropout who somehow senses the oncoming threat. They're also aided by The Guardian, a supernatural lifeguard-of-sorts played by Ben Foster, who cranks his acting up to 11.

A shambolic fever dream 

To call Warcraft sprawling doesn't really do justice to this shambolic, Dungeons and Dragons fever dream of a story. You can feel Jones — a filmmaker who displayed a knack for smart storytelling in the movie Moon — straining mightily.

Actor Travis Fimmel (left, as Anduin Lothar) and director Duncan Jones appear on the set of the new film Warcraft. (Universal Pictures)

Newbies who've never played WoW will find the experience overwhelming.

Like a bad Xerox of The Lord of the Rings, random characters and races appear with little explanation. Who are the purple people with the impressive eyebrows? Is that a dwarf? Oh look! Callum Keith Rennie in a robe as The Guardian's butler. Oh look! A flying eagle-lion thing. And there's Paula Patton as an orc-human hybrid (and looking like Gamora's second cousin). She seems to have a thing for Lothar. But he's worried about his son.

Good Lord, I'm exhausted just recapping it.

Warcraft seeks to bludgeon us into submission with its vast visuals. But from the tusk-faced orc warriors to the knights in armour, there's a derivative feel to much of it.

While the film's CGI attempts to give the mythic menagerie a sense of grit and gravity, the dialogue is disappointingly undercooked. No one ever tells a wizard to 'Shut up!' in a Tolkien novel, but that's what passes for wit in this realm.

Warcraft attempts to give its mythic menagerie a sense of grit and gravity, but the dialogue is disappointingly undercooked, says CBC's Eli Glasner. (Universal Pictures/Associated Press)

Jones' valiant struggle

The utterly obvious parts of the story suggest Warcraft is best appreciated by 12-year-olds high on Red Bull.

But if you squint and look beyond the crashing mallets and clanging swords, you can see director Jones waging his own valiant struggle to shape this into something grander, notably with the fate of the orcs and Durotan in particular. The warrior and new father is willing to risk everything for his people's future.

The result (if you make it this far) is a tale about fathers and son, sacrifice and loss. Ironies abound since Jones recently lost his own father, David Bowie. The director is also a fan of the original game and may have erred on the side of fandom in his attempt to cram its vast world into a two-hour experience.  

Indeed, Warcraft is meant to be the beginning of a new movie franchise. Here's hoping the next installment finds a better balance between overwhelming action and satisfying storytelling. 

RATING: 3 out of 5 stars

About the Author

Eli Glasner

Entertainment reporter and film critic

Eli Glasner is a national entertainment reporter and film critic for CBC News. Each Friday he reviews films on CBC News Network as well as appearing on CBC radio programs coast to coast. Covering culture has taken him from the northern tip of Moosonee, Ont. to the Oscars red carpet.