Chaotic "Warcraft" Has Charisma To Burn

Just how do you adapt to film a massive multiplayer online role-playing game that has no beginning, no ending, no lead character, and a foundation of moral relativism? Writer-director Duncan Jones (“Source Code”) has no idea, either, but he’s too gifted to not make a spirited go of it.

Based on Blizzard Entertainment’s decade-old but still thriving “World Of Warcraft,” the film tells the story of multiple orc clans fleeing their dying planet (Draenor) to find a new home. Once they escape through a portal to the realm of Azeroth, the clans immediately fracture, throwing Azeroth into a state of flux: humans fighting orcs, orcs fighting orcs, and orcs fighting more orcs. Virtuous orc warrior Uritan (voice and motion capture performed by Toby Kebbell) is the picture’s de facto lead, but “Warcraft” is the rare big budget ensemble piece. The cast is expansive, their screen time balanced.

From Paula Patton as Garona the half-orc to Ben Foster as Medivh the mysterious guardian, Jones (son of the late, historically great David Bowie) gets interesting performances from nearly his entire company. It never feels like there’s enough of Uritan or Garona in particular – each pulsing with battle-scarred eccentricity – but while said scarcity is an indictment of the screenplay (co-written by Jones and shaky scribe Charles Leavitt), it’s also a tribute to Jones’ directorial might.

For instance, Travis Fimmel’s Lothar, lead warrior for the human Alliance, is always at emotional arm’s length, never quite as impactful as the story requires. But his slippery charisma ably anchors every scene in which he squares off against computer-generated behemoths, the actor undoubtedly empowered to make interesting, off-center character choices by his director.

More on those computer-generated behemoths: Industrial Light & Magic’s special effects are wildly impressive, if a little cold. Many of the wide shots of the orcs in action come off as a tech demo rather than a necessary visual component to the scenes they’re in. But Jones is ever in control of his camera. The vast majority of the time it’s right where it needs to be, a boon to a movie as overstuffed as this one. Jones’ visual eye is indispensible, leading our gaze without forcing it. And some of the action scenes are undeniably showstopping.

The movie sputters whenever it devolves into ordinary, magic-free exposition, with performances from Dominic Cooper (King Llane Wrinn) and Ben Schnetzer (a young mage named Khadgar) coming without personality. Moreover, the malevolent orc Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) is a woefully one-dimensional baddie that evokes the worst of Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” films. But the rest of the cast, both live-action and CGI, are terrific, eating up Jones’ decree of interesting characterization. Uritan’s introduction alone imparts more information about him than most big fantasy films would manage over two or three hours (yet another shortcoming of Jackson’s “Hobbit” trilogy).

Few will mistake “Warcraft” for any kind of masterwork, but it’s a movie of small victories and flashes of breathtaking beauty. It’s Duncan Jones’ worst film to date, but he’s proved that even the weight of a $150 million budget isn’t enough to crush him and that he’s more than capable of wringing thrills from a soggy script (one that he’s partially to blame for).

Some audiences will take away nothing but the clumsy pacing and overabundance of characters. No harm, no foul. But depth is hard to come by in sprawling fantasy epics, and there’s plenty here. Even if it’s scattered and takes some work on the part of moviegoers. But Paula Patton as a fanged, green, wryly funny orc doesn’t come along every day.

Does the end result occasionally look like an ad for a freemium iPhone app? Yes. Does it come with a musical theme that would be too gaudy for a King Kong reboot? It does. Is it frequently leaden in its plotting and short on intelligible dialogue? It is. But the answers to these questions tell only half the story. The other half is one of a surprisingly soulful character study dressed up as a special effects extravaganza. For every thing “Warcraft” does wrong – and there are many – it does something very right.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: June 10, 2016
Studio: Universal Pictures, Legendary Pictures
Director: Duncan Jones
Screenwriter: Duncan Jones, Charles Leavitt
Starring: Toby Kebbell, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Travis Fimmel, Daniel Wu, Dominic Cooper, Clancy Brown, Ben Schnetzer, Ruth Negga, Robert Kazinsky, Anna Galvin
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for extended sequences of intense fantasy violence)