In 2001 a friend, a grown-up, saw The Fellowship of the Ring more than a dozen times in the theater. Sometimes she’d leave with a half-hour left. “I just needed to get to Galadriel and Lothlorien,” she told me. She didn’t need all the climactic fighting.
In 2012 I took my mother to see the baggy, dithering first installment of the Hobbit trilogy. Afterwards, she scoffed at the critics, proclaiming, “I was happy to spend so much time in that world without all the beat-’em-ups.”
For many of the millions who love it, fantasy can be a refuge — not a quick escape from this world but the opportunity to luxuriate in another. Sadly, they won’t find much world to sink into in Warcraft, the 3-D adaptation of the computer-game series whose online role-playing edition marked the greatest monetization yet of the addictive game concepts Gary Gygax and David Arneson invented with Dungeons & Dragons: kill monsters, get loot, grow more powerful, kill bigger monsters. The movie makes you yearn for real life, even as its camera swoops you through spectacular dwarf forges, ivory cities, throne rooms, and wizards’ towers.
Warcraft dashes through its HD renderings so fast that details merely slough the eye. Other than one shot of a wizard naïf gaping at a circular staircase, the filmmakers expect you to pause Warcraft at home if you want to see what its army of artists actually designed. (And, seriously, the capital is called Stormwind City? Who names their town after an A+ reason not to live there?)
Fans of the beat-’em-ups will be even more miserable. Warcraft plods toward its climactic battle like Sisyphus shoving that stone up Hell’s hill — you’ll abandon hope of it ever getting there. It’s the kind of day-killer of a movie that, just before the third act, shackles its heroes in prison cells. Is there any viewer who doesn’t know they’ll eventually escape, and that the lockup scenes are the best possible time to go to the bathroom? The Warcraft games emphasize, in different iterations, both strategic city-sacking and the jolly, dungeon-delving, party-based adventuring of D&D. The movie can’t even get those basics right, confining its battles to a forest, a campground by a portal, and the patio area of a wizard’s indoor pool.
In short, Warcraft is the most wearying kind of bad movie, a dull and sad one that’s less engaging a watch than just seeing the studio’s millions run bill by bill through a shredder for two hours. Ten more reels of Bilbo Baggins’s singing-dancing dwarf dinner party would play like Raiders of the Lost Ark by comparison. It’s pompous and grim and confusing, set in an imperiled fantasy land — Azeroth — that may as well be named Generica. Key scenes seem to have been sliced away or never filmed. An hour had passed before I felt confident I could tell, in a lineup, which bearded fellow was king, which was wizard, and which was warrior. Their common trait, besides general indistinguishability: They’re all awfully quick to give speeches to chain-bound half-orc slave Garona about how hard their lives have been.
But Paula Patton, as that half-orc, has quite a high charisma score. Garona’s torn between two worlds, as the back cover of the novelization might say, but Patton finds feeling and humor in the ridiculous role. She scores the film’s only honest laughs when she bluntly tells that wizard naïf that he would be an ineffective lover. In the final scenes, Garona even gets to make a tense, difficult decision, and Warcraft briefly seems to have hot blood in its veins.
There are a few other elements that might interest devotees of fantasy cheese. First, the filmmakers honor the games’ multivarious perspectives by casting an orc (Toby Kebbell) as Warcraft’s first onscreen hero — and depicting orc marriage with big-lug tenderness. These scenes aren’t good, exactly, but they’re the only ones in the film that suggest that anyone in Azeroth (or the orc world invading it) has ever felt anything besides go-here/fight-that. The mo-cap work is expressive and convincing, with more care spent on each brutish orc nipple than on the entirety of the script. Kebbell rumbles dutifully in the role, but the performance and the technical achievement are defeated by the creature design: Why do the orcs have such huge and ill-proportioned Hamburger Helper hands?
More pleasing, for fans of this kind of thing, is Warcraft‘s spirited and inventive (for a movie) depiction of magic. It’s here that you might see why a director as promising as Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code) signed on for this — in the margins, he finds room to play. There’s shivery horror in the way an orc shaman sucks the white-light life out of his chattel, and bad-guy magery is always marked with plumes of necromantic green. A wizard hero, meanwhile, rains lightning down on a small squad of enemies, and the sequence is more scary and satisfying than anything Thor’s ever done onscreen — the forces unleashed seem just barely controlled.
Finally, I have to give Warcraft this: It inspired the most impassioned profane heckle I’ve heard at a movie screening since the time a young man hollered out as War Horse climaxed, “It’s just a fucking horse!” This time, the shout came forty minutes in, after the excitable preview audience had settled into fitful silence. As characters whose names I couldn’t keep straight jawed at each other through their beards, a real person yelled, “Fuck this boring white shit!” and barreled right out of the theater. His escape: 2016 America.