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June 10, 2016

As full disclosure right up front, I haven’t played any of the video games on which Warcraft is based since they used to be real-time strategy games, almost twenty years ago. The mythos of the games has developed considerably since then, and all I honestly remember is humans and orcs building infrastructure and armies to attack each other. This may all play better to people who are better-versed in the lore than I am, and I stand a fair chance of getting things wrong. That said, if I do it’s probably because Warcraft is a bit of a sprawling mess that isn’t exactly the most friendly to newcomers.

The movie functions — or at least tries to — as an origin story for the major conflict in the game world. Humans, dwarves, elves, and such had established peace and an Alliance among the Seven Kingdoms of Azeroth, led by King Llane (Dominic Cooper) of Stormwind.

Orcs had peace too, on their world, but mostly by dint of conquering everything else around them, so they were in desperate need of new enemies to fight. But then the warlock Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) finds that he can open a portal using a dark magic called fel, which draws on life as its power. Their existing slaves provide enough energy to send through a war band, which will then round up enough human lives to bring the rest of the orcish Horde through.

As the orcs lay waste to Azeroth, the humans take notice. The young wizard Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) identifies the effects of the fel on the body of a slain soldier, so the king sends his champion, Lothar (Travis Fimmel) to seek the help of the powerful wizard Guardian, Medivh (Ben Foster). Meanwhile, there’s dissent among the orcs about whether they should be using the fel at all; Durotan (Toby Kebbell) has the greatest misgivings, and makes overtures to the humans to enlist their help in stopping Gul’dan. And the humans capture a half-orc slave, Garona (Paula Patton) with a talent for languages who acts as a logistic and emotional intermediary between the two sides.

All of this plays out like the prequel to a second movie, which I’m somewhat skeptical that we’ll ever see. Not that that’s a big surprise; it’s a rare blockbuster that gets approved anymore without at least the potential of spinning out a series. But they’re rarely this desperate to sell you on the idea that there’s more to the story.

The last ten or fifteen minutes of Warcraft lay the groundwork and point the way to the next part of the story, complete with a Moses-in-a-basket to hint at an Exodus for this movie’s Genesis. Other blockbusters have done that too — I’m looking at you, Maze Runner — but here it comes at the expense of any satisfactory resolution to any of the story lines that made up the bulk of the movie.

This might be intended to echo the open-ended nature of the World of Warcraft online gaming experience, which makes its money on a subscription model. There always needs to be new material ready for players to justify paying their $15 for the next month. Not in a year or so, on the usual movie sequel cycle; the player needs to want more now! They’re even giving away free trial subscriptions with tickets, in order to meet all the expected new demand.

If you’re an existing player, already invested in these stories, then this kind of sprawl may be fine. You’ll recognize names and places and events as you go and integrate them into a larger context. If you’ve never heard of Azeroth before, well, good luck, and did you know you can pay for the equivalent of a movie ticket every single month to learn more?

So, storywise, Warcraft may be a turd, but it’s an exquisitely polished one, inlaid with gold filigree and bedecked with lozenge-cut gemstones. The fantastic elements never cross over into the sort of thing someone could mistake for reality, but they do look, well, fantastic. The stereography is easily the best post-conversion work I’ve seen in years, and rivals the quality of native 3-D productions like The Jungle Book and X-Men: Apocalypse. A movie can’t become a winner on good looks and ambition alone, but they certainly raise it above the worst blockbusters littering theaters today.

Worth it: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.


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