How do you talk about a movie like Warcraft?
For the uninitiated, Warcraft is a series of medieval-fantasty computer games—part Tolkien, part Dungeons and Dragons, all nerdy—that helped ushered in the modern era of acronym-heavy gaming. Although it began life as an RTS (real-time strategy), it became part of the lexicon with the release of the MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) WoW (World of Warcraft). That game was an immersive experience, and players reveled in its enveloping environments. It’s the closest we’ve come to virtual reality so far. A popular episode of “South Park” contrasted the game’s endlessly customizable avatars and their impossible physiques with the greasy, basement-dwelling players controlling them in real life. It may have been an easy joke, but it landed because the game’s promise of sky’s-the-limit experience was so at odds with its limited and repetitive reality. Warcraft promised fantastic worlds of magic, sorcery, and endlessly beautiful landscapes begging to be explored, but players spent most of their time killing boars and “building XP.”
In “South Park,” the joke was that Warcraft players had “no life,” and it’s a punch line that could be applied to the movie adaptation without skipping a beat. Warcraft, which hits Kansas City screens this weekend, is a corpse. Duncan Jones, son of David Bowie and best known for crafty, puzzle head-trips like Moon and Source Code, wrote and directed it. His gently stylish touch is recognizable in a promisingly energetic POV sequence that opens the movie and a midpoint montage that lifts the camera high above the map and shoots across the terrain to reveal a god’s-eye view of a world at war that mimics the look of the source material.
Warcraft nails more than the game’s hyper-macho aggression, goofy seriousness, and impossible body-building aesthetic. Jones has dived so deeply into this material that, like those “South Park” caricatures, he’s left the real world behind. It’s aggressively impenetrable nonsense that would beg for subtitles if one didn’t get that sense that the translation wouldn’t be worth the effort. Warcraft pits armies of oversized troll dolls with overbites called Orcs against what’re referred to as humans, but whose speech and behavior is anything but. (As Sir Anduin Lothar, Travis Fimmel gives a performance that’s as close as this movie comes to the otherworldly.)
Exemplified by the works of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and L. Frank Baum, the portal-quest fantasy subgenre—and there are lots of portals here—is notable for its immersion: it invites participation and invokes a shared experience of imaginary transportation. But there’s nothing inviting in Warcraft; it seems designed to keep its audience at a distance. As a movie, it fails on almost every front. But as a video game adaptation, it’s something like a success—it nails the experience of watching someone else play: visually interesting in passing, but actively incomprehensible. In the world of Warcraft, there’s no such thing as multiplayer.
Warcraft. Directed by Duncan Jones. Written by Charles Leavitt and Duncan Jones. Starring Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, and Ben Foster. Opens in Kansas City June 10.