Warcraft: the Beginning review: “the visuals are breathtaking but the cast are swamped by action and exposition”

Duncan Jones can't be faulted for treating the hit video game with respect, but the vastness of his vision leaves his characters all at sea

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★★

There are few things certain in the film world. However, up to this point it’s been almost universally agreed that video games tend not to translate to the big screen. There are disastrous examples such as Super Mario Bros and Street Fighter in the early 90s, but even the better-received video-game adaptations have generally fell short of their pixelated source material.

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The man hoping to change that trend is Moon director Duncan Jones, and the game is World of Warcraft. Set in the fantasy world of Azeroth, Warcraft: the Beginning follows a kingdom of men who must prepare for war when a race of Orcs, led by the villainous Gul’dan (Daniel Wu), come to their world via a portal. The only chance for peace lies with Durotan (Toby Kebbell), an Orc warrior convinced the only way for his kind to survive is to work with the Azeroth king (Dominic Cooper) to stop Gul’dan

The first task of any film based on a pre­-existing title is to capture the feel of it, and in that sense Jones has succeeded. The visuals are breathtaking, creating a world that feels legitimately torn from the game, rather than Hollywood’s adaptation of it. It’s also an interesting take on the fantasy genre in general, with the blunt, honour-driven Orcs given as much of a point of view as the ornate, swaggering humans. There are few films that ever achieve that kind of narrative balance.

So, why does it feel so empty? 

It’s not often that a film suffers from taking too little time to tell its story, but two hours just doesn’t seem enough to establish the vastness of Jones’s vision and still deliver something with an emotional impact. Durotan has a few quiet, character­-building moments with his pregnant wife before being thrust into the film’s main plot, while the rest of the cast are too swamped by action and exposition to create any kind of connection. The result is the moments meant to draw a gasp don’t quite deliver, no matter how well rendered the images on the screen are.

Then there’s the burning question – whom is this meant for? Newcomers will struggle to keep up with the names, powers, cities and twists that are hastily being thrown at them. Those familiar with the game will respect the reverence with which their passion has been treated, but can this kind of narrative really compete with the original version, where the adventure is theirs to choose and experience? If there’s such a thing as too much respect for the source material, Warcraft may be guilty of it.

Cast members jostle for screen time, but with little building beyond a few brief monologues there’s not much chance for them to make an impression. Arguably the most fun is Ben Foster, strutting and elegant as a wizard known as the Guardian. Toby Kebbell, like his Dawn of the Planet of the Apes co­-star Andy Serkis, is an actor who really understands motion capture, as you can see from the way his Durotan has nuance and depth in between the grunts. Other characters are not so lucky. Dominic Cooper looks desperately in need of more lines as the human King, while Travis Fimmel feels like a lead that’s lost his way as chief of the Azeroth army. He’s arguably the biggest disappointment, unnecessarily acting cocky and ultimately a bit unlikeable because he has little to do other than clash swords and quip.

If looks could make a movie, then this hoped-for this franchise-starter would be one of the hits of the summer. But that’s only half the battle in transporting a popular game from the computer to the multiplex. If the characters are given time to breathe, the inevitable sequel could be promising, but on its own Warcraft: the Beginning doesn’t quite hit the mark.

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Warcraft: the Beginning is in cinemas now