I guess you would call it poetic justice that the first film we review here at Dopamine, Warcraft: The Beginning, is based on a world that has consumed this writer in the past far more than any drugs could. The World of Warcraft is a decade-old, monolithic, almost genre-defining Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game with a 20-year history of fantasy and fiction behind it, as well as about 10 years of my life. If this review reads negatively, just know that I had an absolute blast watching this movie.
The plot of the film actually most closely resembles that of the 1994 strategy game Warcraft: Orcs and Humans, telling the story of an orc army escaping its destroyed home world to the fantasy paradise of Azeroth.
When the violent horde attacks, brother of the queen Anduin Lothar (Vikings’ Travis Fimmel) and disgraced mage Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) set out out on a journey guided by the mysterious guardian Medivh (Ben Foster). Meanwhile, orc chieftain and new-father Durotan (Toby Kebbel) attempts to correct the destructive course of his race, lead by the power-hungry warlock Gul’dan (Daniel Wu).
Throwaway lines of dialogue provide decent context but in its opening act the film never really gives you a visual depiction of what the heroes are fighting for to contrast with epic pan shots of its battlefields and wastelands (think, The Shire in Lord of the Rings). This is a shame as the World of Warcraft is filled with luscious environments that could have played that role (think, Goldshire in South Park’s Make Love Not Warcraft).
Warcraft: The Beginning is awash with bright, colourful creatures and special effects that, while true to the video game franchise’s art style, might remind modern cinemagoers of James Cameron’s Avatar – fast, loud, and because of the 3D, a little blurry. The greatest testament to its CGI is its orc characters. In particular, Toby Kebbel’s orc chieftain Durotan shines as one of the most detailed and expressive motion capture-generated characters we’ve seen on screen to date. Where the film’s special effects are let down however, are often in its human-oriented scenes. Impressive sets and costumes often visually clash with computer-generated effects, leaving some moments looking a little pasted together and artificial.
Weapons, items, characters, and references are tastefully, and sometimes more blatantly scattered throughout the film’s cavalcade of locations. To the uninitiated, I can imagine these would simply appear to be obscure set pieces that the camera lingers on for a second too long. But to fans of the franchise these non-stop references and Easter eggs deliver fan service on a level that would make Star Wars: The Force Awakens blush.
As an origins story, Warcraft: The Beginning does a decent job of establishing what is hopefully the start of a cinematic universe. Fans of the franchise would tell you its most iconic stories and characters are only teased in this first instalment. To fresh audiences, this may make the size of the supporting cast and the many locations overwhelming and instantly forgettable. But the film mostly succeeds in developing its core characters and motives and the plot is generally easy to follow. It probably helps that it’s the third movie directed by David Bowie’s son Duncan Jones, whose previous features Moon and Source Code have both attained quite a cult status as sci-fi classics.
What we’re left with here is a film that, for all its flaws, cannot be faulted on its heart. Burdened with the immense feat of turning what was once the very definition of “nerd” into a mainstream cinematic vehicle, Warcraft: The Beginning may still surprise fresh audiences with engaging relationships and entertaining moments. In a media landscape where all people really wanted to know was “is it bad?”, this may not be enough for harsh critics, but for the tens of millions out there whose lives have been touched by Warcraft – those who have been Warcraft’s harshest critics for over a decade – it just might be.