It starts with the first scene.
On an empty desert battlefield, an armored man retrieves his fallen shield and bashes his sword against it to taunt his opponent. An orc, a green-skinned, red-eyed monster with a hammer the size of the entire human, roars back. The duo, exhausted, long after the battle has been decided, circle each other, hatred gleaming in their eyes. This is the viewers’ cue — this won’t be a movie about lore. This is going to be a movie about action, blood, carnage and terror. It’s going to be about mass battle scenes, noble sacrifices and thinly veiled allegories for addiction and racism, a desperate, hate-fueled romp across Azeroth, a barrage of brutal, hard-R action.
Then it cuts away before they meet, and you realize this movie will actually be about lore.
Warcraft takes place during the First War, when the orcs of Draenor first invade Azeroth. In an effort to do justice to both sides, the movie adopts a complex narrative with two protagonists — Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), the Lion of Stormwind, and Durotan (Toby Kebbell). One thrust into conflict to defend his home and one trying to establish a new one, they both discover and attempt to root out demonic corruption in their own ranks.
The problem isn’t that this movie is about lore. They could have made a terrific movie about lore. Some of Blizzard’s expository shorts they release ahead of expansions belong at Cannes. The problem is a basic failure to film a scene. The vast majority of this movie is talkie scenes, and they’re some of the worst ever put to screen. Almost every scene feels like a slapped-together rush of exposition meant to speed things along to the action scenes, but those action scenes don’t come. It’s an infernal loop, with one slapdash exposition scene followed by another, then another, then another.
Several scenes cut out the basic building blocks they need to function. Once the movie gets going, there’s not an establishing shot to be found. Many scenes end suddenly, leaving the viewer with the impression there was a lot more to them than that. Two hours of these half-scenes back to back will leave viewers bewildered and not really knowing what’s going on at a given moment, ironically because of the lengths the movie is going to to help them understand.
The scenes aren’t just slapdash, they’re atrocious to look at. The blocking is simplistic and boring, which feels like a given for a movie this lazily made, but the visual elements are horribly fake looking even aside from their poor arrangement. Even on the computer, most stills look like one or two images pasted on top of another. The movie as a whole is designed to look exactly like World of Warcraft — that is, a cartoon with garish, fanciful elements that don’t translate at all to live action.
From the trailers, the CGI orcs looked bland and utterly indistinguishable, but in the final product it’s their voices that are the bigger offender. The voices are so messed up and over-corrected they all sound the same, too. Nowhere is this worse than with Gul’dan (Daniel Wu), who sounds like he’s slurring every line. With the exception of Garona Halforcen (Paula Patton), I’m really not sure why they even hired actors when almost everything about their performances was remade by a computer anyway.
Even when the action does pick up, it’s not great. There are some fantastic kills in this movie — though not with the grotesque splatter-gore I’d like to have seen — but for the most part, they try to turn action scenes into the massive, sweeping set pieces that would be the payoff for all the horribly rushed dialogue, and those get messed up, too. Most of them focus on horribly rendered magic as keynote visuals, but subtly the worst one is the final mass battle scene at the Dark Portal. It’s composed mostly of sweeping aerial shots, the kind they used in Lord of the Rings. But where Lord of the Rings always had a catapult or a bat-dragon-thing to focus on in those shots and justify their scale, Warcraft has nothing of the sort. There’s nothing big going on that’s affecting the entire battle. The scene — this climactic battle scene that caps off the entire movie — is composed primarily of shots that tell you a lot of fighting is going on, but don’t show you any of the fighting.
Writer/director Duncan Jones can’t really be blamed here. It’s clear that he was asked to make a three-hour movie fit into a two-hour time frame, and that never turns out right. But this movie takes the kinds of shortcuts you just can’t take. Even at two hours — which feel closer to four — this feels like less than a movie. It feels incomplete.
Warcraft will release widely June 10.
Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.