Warcraft: The Beginning has been in production for two years; it's been in development for a decade. The whole cast and crew, and especially director Duncan Jones, bear a heavy weight on their shoulders in carrying this to the screen, comprised of millions of Warcraft fans as well as production dollars. It was never going to be as good as people wanted it to be. But it's nowhere near as bad as you've heard. You might actually, whisper it, like it.
How much you enjoy it will likely depend on the context you have. This is a film made primarily for a specific audience, that being someone who has played Warcraft and has some knowledge of the lore behind it. This is the camp that I fall into. The other camp, that of people who couldn't tell you what Warcraft is beyond 'a video game', let alone know how to spec a Warlock up for stacking that sweet DOT on an enemy, will have some difficulty.
This is most true in the first half an hour or so, where the goodwill of anyone who isn't already on board needs to be won and is, instead, probably lost.The film introduces characters and cuts between different locations extremely quickly, a bit dizzying even if you recognise them. A few minutes spent at Goldshire, for example, jolts you out of the film to ponder why the King of Azeroth and his entourage would be hanging about in a village pub, before you're whisked away to somewhere else. After this onslaught of elbow nudges for Warcraft fans that's devoid of context for regular cinema goers, it settles down into something easier to follow.
The humans, lead by angry wildcard Sir Lothar and the aforementioned King Llane (played respectively by Travis Fimmel off of that Vikings TV show, and Dominic Cooper, clean cut and boyish even with a beard) are deciding how to fend off an invading war band of orcs, whose own home world has died and have arrived to claim a new one. Durotan (Toby Kebbell), chief of the orcish Frostwolf Clan, becomes uneasy about the methods and true intentions of Gul'dan (Daniel Wu), who leads the collective Horde of orcs by wielding evil, destructive magic. Lines thus become blurred. It has some surprising complexity for a film which is, on the face of it, about men and other, bigger men hitting one another; there are strong threads of sacrifice and loss which Jones has done well to weave in, although this subtlety is undercut by the crass nature of games as a source material, and their propensity to indicate evil vs. good with colour coding (in this case the more green you are the more the bad magic has corrupted you).
The accuracy to the source material is where Warcraft: The Beginning can fall over for non–fans, but it also provides some of the most spectacular bits for everyone. Locations are ripped straight from the game and recreated with impressive accuracy, and there are shots angled at buildings from above or below which are incredibly interesting as well as giving the film a deliberately grand scale. Fans can appreciate that the griffons land in Stormwind City in exactly the same place they do in World of Warcraft the game, but even if you're not a fan you can appreciate the spectacle of the Dark Portal. Fights are suitably epic and creatively shot; magic crackles and blooms across the screen in a loin-stirringly powerful way, and one of my largest disappointments was that more mages didn't tool up to sling some lightning around.
The CGI orcs in particular are detailed enough to see individual beads of sweat. The animation of them, fully performed and motion capped by their actors, means they look, behave, and emote like real people, rather than bloodthirsty monsters. The orc actors Kebbell, Wu, and Rob Kazinsky end up turning in more convincing performances than many of their human counterparts, even though they had less to work with on set: no physical costumes, and fights choreographed several feet apart to account for scaling up on screen. Credit should, however, go to Fimmel and Paula Patton, the female lead, whose romance never blossoms into the cliché of an actual romance, and is instead almost wholly communicated by the pair of them staring at each other like they want to beat the shit out of each other but are also unprecedentedly aroused by this notion.
A lot of happy ending tropes are never realised in the film, which is no bad thing (and it ends with more of a question mark than a full stop, because there's a lot of Warcraft story left to mine, presumably by dwarves and gnomes and so on). Duncan Jones is not an idiot filmmaker; quite the opposite, but this one is on an impossible tightrope. The constant tension between avoiding cliché and being an adaptation of one of the most cliché–fuelled themes ever conceived by man, between making a film just for fans and making a film that can stand on its own, is why Warcraft: The Beginning hasn't accomplished what it wanted to, but one imagines that if another film were made it would have a greater notion of what that is or should be. It's certainly not a bad film.
Yes, it's a bit messy. It has moments of disorientation, the antagonist's motivations are never explained, and there are definitely times that your eyes will roll at the sheer high fantasy of it all. But it also has moments of grandeur, and sadness, and times that you forget to critically evaluate everything because something really cool just happened. It's smarter than it could be, competently acted, and very competently made – and made with love too, which is more than can be said for any of the films in The Hobbit trilogy. Even the last one of those is currently rated at, fuck me, a 7.5 on IMDB, and that was bloody awful. The least Warcraft: The Beginning deserves is that you go in with an open mind, because honestly, I didn't. I thought it was going to be shit. It's not.