Prior to the two showings I went to on Friday, one in 3D and one in standard, I spent an indecent amount of time panning a wide range of critical opinions and held those criticisms fresh in my mind during both viewings. I'll even say I went into the theater a bit nervous at the first viewing, having great hope the movie wouldn't be a disappointment or worse: an embarrassment as a fan of the universe it was based on.
While definitely not a perfect film, I can state with full confidence that this movie is not this generation's Battlefield Earth, nor will it turn out to be the blockbuster flop of the summer. What plagues this film the most is the fact director Duncan Jones' original cut was shortened by 40 minutes for theatrical release. Perhaps lesser of a plague is that this movie is based on a video game, an inescapable fact that had many of my friends saying the previews "looked cool" while wondering if it was a movie made for them or just fans of the games. This is a movie that players of the game(s) should absolutely love, and also provides a enjoyable experience for folks looking for a fresh, action-packed and visually stunning fantasy film.
Orc rendering is a thing of beauty, with more attention given to the named orcs in the movie. Even though the CGI orcs who make up the horde are reportedly varied in their makeup and assembly, they still feel like the Uruk-hai from Tolkien's universe, if less mindless. And I'd argue this isn't a bad thing: with a main character sheet so large, introducing more key players like Killogg Deadeye and Grom Hellscream would further muddy the waters (though if you're watching closely both have cameos).
The various settings throughout Azeroth are keenly representative of their in-game counterparts, from the exterior of Dalaran and the library of Karazhan, to the interior of Stormwind's throne room. While World of Warcraft's art style tends to be over the top and boxy, the architecture fit well within this world and didn't distract from the movie.
The movie features a healthy dose of magic, which for the most part is rendered believably. There are a couple of shots featuring Khadgar and Medivh that remind me of bad television CGI. A bit cringe-worthy, but I didn't think the largely-CGI film would make it all the way through unblemished.
Throughout the next quarter of the film as the plot develops, we're introduced to the rest of the movie's major players, a fairly large ensemble: Orgrim Doomhammer, Blackhand, King Llane, Lady Taria, Gul'dan, Garona, Anduin Lothar, Callan Lothar, Khadgar and Medivh, as well as a few ancillary characters who have relatively small yet recurring presences throughout the movie. While this a fraction of the number of characters Lord of the Rings wanted audiences to care about, those movies had the luxury of longer runtimes with the story unfolding over three installments, something the source material for Warcraft could have supported. Character development is a bit hampered due to the constraining length of the film, and as a result there could have been more depth across the board, even if there were no major disappointments.
Based on trailer footage, I went in skeptical of Dominic Cooper's King Llane and Paula Patton's Garona. I thought the former would be a bad casting choice, and the latter wouldn't provide a convincing performance. I was wrong on both counts. Cooper fits well as the benevolent and wise king of the Alliance, and Patton portrays Garona as a hardened outcast loved by neither the orcs or the humans. There is a particular scene where a dejected Garona asks Durotan if the Frostwolf Clan will accept her among their ranks, and Durotan replies that she is safer with the humans. Even though the movie could have explored its characters further to foster greater audience investment, this was a poignant moment where I really felt for Garona and her status as an outsider to both worlds.
Durotan, brought to life by Toby Kebbel, gives one of the movie's best performances. To me that feels like saying Andy Serkis' Gollum gave a better performance than Elijah Wood in Lord of the Rings, but it's true in this case. The level of detail Duncan Jones and ILM were able to capture and portray on-screen is absolutely stunning. While there were a few CGI elements that jolted me out of the film, orc rendering was not one of them. In fact, the orcs translate so well that they at times come across as more realistic than the humans. It feels like Jones placed extra emphasis on making the orcs relatable, which is shown particularly in the interactions between Durotan, Draka and Orgrim. As a consequence sometimes their human counterparts come across a bit flat.
Daniel Wu's Gul'dan serves as a twisted and believable villain, but unlike Rob Kazinsky's Orgrim Doomhammer and Kebbel's Durotan, I cannot find the actor beneath the CGI. Still, Wu provides a solid performance, and fans of the game may be surprised by the scene where Gul'dan engages in some good ol' hand-to-hand combat. I'd always thought he was a decrepit and diseased old orc who could stand only with the aid of a staff. Still, the scene worked.
Rounding out the human performances were Ben Foster's Medivh and Ben Shnetzer's Khadgar. Foster's approach to Medivh has you wondering (by design) just what the frick he's really up to the whole time (until, of course, you find out exactly what's been going on). Schnetzer brings an earnest portrayal of the bumbling young mage Khadgar, and in one scene provides the most over-the-top and comical game reference for fans familiar with the Warcraft universe.
The one character portrayal that didn't resonate with me was Clancy Brown's Blackhand. Though it was neat to see how he gets his "black hand" this time around, he feels rather like the hollow, standard lieutenant villain seen in Hollywood movies: a brute, unthinking enforcer blindly following the orders of his deranged boss. I can understand, based on the original lore, why they chose to feature Blackhand instead of someone like Deadeye or Hellscream, but to the casual viewer his inclusion may not seem to serve many purposes other than to have another recognizable evil face on screen. Out of all the named orcs, his CGI rendering was the poorest, which is too bad since just by looking at Brown's looming presence as an actor one might think he'd make a great orc.
Since Jones' approach to the movie sees the conflict through the lens of both the orcs and the humans, there is little time for wasted exposition. Stakes need to be heightened for all characters on both sides of the war in time for the climactic battle. Normally a director would have a good 90 minutes to do this, but with two sides to the conflict this is halved for each, and we're sometimes shown rather hastily what a certain character has to lose in the stakes game. Anduin Lothar's non-game-lore son Callan's presence is an example of this and tells the audience that Lothar has more to lose than a mere battle. It feels simultaneously forced, but necessary: we know our humans fight for Azeroth's salvation, but it can be difficult at times to understand why.
With the orcs, we're explicitly told that their home world is dying, but aren't shown too much. As a fan of the game, I know exactly what this means and what it looks like, but I can see how a casual viewer might have a hard time conceptualizing how bad things were in order for the orc clans to look for an escape---an escape that involved invading and enslaving a new world. And it isn't until the orcs have arrived on Azeroth that Durotan's Frostwolves begin to realize that wherever Gul'dan's magic goes, death follows. Perhaps this is why the orcs, specifically the Frostwolves, felt like richer characters, since their obstacles for survival became two-fold in that moment: overcome/cooperate with the human resistance and escape the enslavement of Gul'dan's fel magic.
Fans of the game universe know the essentials of this story, but the lore has been tailored for blockbuster digestion. As I mentioned above, the film features new characters in Callan Lothar and Ladia Taria, the wife to King Llane whose existence we knew of but nothing else. There are also some character deaths that play out quite differently from how they happen in the game lore. The changes do add a greater immediate impact in the film and the fates of several characters are resolved to satisfying ends, even if they differ from the original tale.
The movie's final few minutes are hopeful in that they hint that this is just the beginning (in fact, the movie is officially titled Warcraft: The Beginning in international markets). This is a bold move. In a greater context where Warcraft: The Middle and Warcraft: The End are sure things, it makes perfect sense. But knowing the fate of those two films rests solely on the success of this one makes the scenes just a tad bittersweet. For a non-seasoned viewer, it isn't the Frodo-tries-to-run-off-without-Sam ending we got with Fellowship of the Rings, but I can imagine it leaves them feeling like a lot is unresolved.
I attended with two friends whose only connection to the Warcraft universe was that they have friends who are connected. They didn't express any issue with plot discernment or clarity, and rather enjoyed the visual spectacle. However, they'd be hard-pressed to name every character by their head shot. So while the story is fast-paced, the environment rich, and the characters varied and numerous, the characters themselves may not have been provided enough screen time to fully resonate with a general audience.