Warcraft: The Beginning review

Rather than leaping straight from a feted debut to the gryphon-in-flight heights of a studio tentpole, Duncan Jones took the cannier, Chris Nolan-esque route of following his minimalist Moon with Source Code’s head-spinning branch-out.

But that slow path wouldn’t necessarily prepare anyone for this franchise-seeding RTS/videogame adaptation’s challenges. Tasked with brokering a peace between event-sized thrills, gaming lore and high fantasy, Jones embraces Warcraft’s world with laudable commitment: but when it comes to charging it with life, sheer bulk gets the better of him.

The road to Azeroth begins distinctly enough, with Jones and Bill Westenhofer’s FX army forging a complex orc society. Where Middle-earth’s hordes merely drooled, great warrior Durotan (Toby Kebbell, eyes emoting through the CGI) engages in bedtime bantz with his pregnant wife. These hefty and heartily characterised performance-capture orcs stand tall among many mighty and mightily detailed CG achievements, particularly in the cases of Durotan and Gul’dan (Daniel Wu), a warlock using soul-sucking magic to punch open a portal into the human world of Azeroth.

But plot problems kick in early, as the orcs’ reasons for invading Azeroth (their own world is dying) are skipped over and their human counterparts struggle to make orc-sized impressions. Despite Travis Fimmel’s restrained twinkle, the knightly Lothar is a bit Aragorn-lite; Ben Foster, meanwhile, tosses off all restraints as a magician dabbling in some dark ham. Paula Patton impresses as the half-human, half-orc Garona, though her panto fangs play havoc with the talking bits and her history remains frustratingly opaque.

 All three at least try to imbue the familiar fantasy stuff of spells and speech-y blurb (about loyalty, honour, family) with character, but the need to build Warcraft’s world stifles certain vitals: drive, levity, audience investment. While Ramin Djawadi’s buff score and Jones’ gryphon’s-eye shots of swarming battle sequences stir the blood, the brutish fights themselves are done’n’dusted rather swiftly, sometimes effectively (one swishy disembowelment scores), sometimes with fun-sapping brevity. Hammer, head, game over.

Some shock deaths show narrative daring, but it’s hard to get that involved when the two-hour runtime is too crammed to let in emotional air. Lacking the longer-form luxuries of Game of Thrones, Warcraft occasionally manages to feel both rushed and dull, impressively staged and disengaged. True, a few quips in the abyss help to alleviate the lumbering piece. But there aren’t enough leavening influences on show, beyond Ben Schnetzer’s endearingly flummoxed trainee wizard, a few fan-pleasing Easter eggs and a nifty, snarling end-tease for a sequel.

If the likelihood of Warcraft netting the returns for that second bout is debatable, what’s more certain is that it feels incomplete in itself. Despite Jones’ stalwart efforts, this is a film that does a lot of ‘Beginning’ without ever truly lifting off.

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