How much you’ll get out of Warcraft: The Beginning may depend on how much you’re willing to engage with the fantasy genre itself; the film is serious-faced high-fantasy and isn’t ashamed of it. This is fine. Where the film wobbles is in being a prequel rather than simply the first in a series, a film that explains how the war between humans and orcs came about without that war ever having presented on film. Unashamedly presenting fantasy film tropes is one thing; assuming an existing audience investment in videogame source material is another.
Without any knowledge of Warcraft myself beyond its existence and a few memes I was at a disadvantage, but Duncan Jones — formerly of the perfect Moon and the slightly less perfect Source Code — gets through the exposition as painlessly as possible. A little too painlessly, if anything; the film could have, and should have, been longer.
It’s unusual for me to wish any film was longer — I’m a firm believer that films shouldn’t be longer than 90 minutes without a note from the parents, and I’m adamant that you could boil a solid 45 minutes out of Captain America: Civil War — but in the case of Warcraft, at just a smidgen over two hours, everything could have done with just a little more room to breathe: a brief voiceover and a brawl between two unnamed opponents sets the scene, and little time is spent explaining anything along the way. The upshot is everything feels slightly rushed, as if the audience is expected to either know the background or be prepared to look things up later: blink, and you’ll miss key moments of exposition; take a quick bathroom break and you can miss whole scenes: there’s a Glenn Close cameo in particular that felt as if it should have been more meaningful, but instead her scene is brief, baffling, and any explanation for it trimmed to the bone.
The film also struggles to get across the size of the world. A birds-eye view of the conflict as a series of villages fall to the orcs comes across as cartoonish rather than epic, and a heavy use of portals and teleportation spells make it tricky to get a bead on where things are in relation to anything else.
Fortunately, issues with lore, length and draw-distance aside, Warcraft: The Beginning is still pleasantly enjoyable. The film is undeniably a looker: Azeroth may lack a horizon, but the lush forestry, terracotta wastelands and blue, icy cliffs are all a treat after the drab palette every superhero film has settled upon as a standard. Action sequences are fun and coherently choreographed, and the motion-captured performances the best I’ve ever seen, the computer-generated orcs expressing as much subtlety and nuance as the human characters, who are also all performed well.
That nuance extends to characterisation, with several on both sides of the fight expressing doubts and fears over their own causes, helping the film avoid falling into a rote, racially-dubious Good White Humans vs. Evil Dark Monsters battle. The story itself is refreshingly unpredictable and generally avoids cliché, and it’s clear that Jones knows how to put convincing relationships on film; everyone here felt real and fleshed out.
Warcraft: The Beginning is, in the end, another John Carter or Pacific Rim: a flawed piece set in an expertly-drawn world with enough to speak highly of that those flaws don’t sink the film. The film’s “The Beginning” suffix seems optimistic; I’d be surprised if the film does well enough to warrant a sequel, but I’ll be just as surprised if it doesn’t find a devoted niche somewhere out there. It’s worth a look, and it won’t take up much of your day.