The peaceful realm of Azeroth stands on the brink of war as its civilization faces a fearsome race of invaders: orc warriors fleeing their dying home to colonize another. As a portal opens to connect the two worlds, one army faces destruction and the other faces extinction. From opposing sides, an unlikely set of heroes are set on a collision course that will decide the fate of their families, their people and their home. So begins a spectacular saga of power and sacrifice in which war has many faces, and everyone fights for something.
Like the brawny orcs of 'Warcraft' adamantly advocating for others observing ancient traditions, this big-budgeted adaptation of the massively popular PC game also adheres to real-world traditions. The action-fantasy box-office flop goes down as yet another example of video games not making good movies. Though, many are placing their bets on 'Assassin's Creed' starring dramatic heavyweights Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as possibly changing all that later this Christmas. However, much like this drab, yawn-inducing production, that action-adventure time-bender might be a visual feast for the eyes, but there's no guaranteeing the core story that attracted players in the first place will translate perfectly to the language of cinema.
'Warcraft,' on the other hand, bursts onto the screen with fantastically detailed battle sequences that should ignite exhilarating applause. It has all the makings of a satisfying summer blockbuster with the bombastic, percussion-heavy score by Ramin Djawadi leading the charge. But it ultimately lacks genuine emotion and a sense of urgency on either side of the battle between humans and orcs.
This is a real shame because the computer-generated visuals are truly remarkable, serving as evidence of how far movie-magic has come in the last twenty years. The lush human world of Azeroth is brimming with wildlife, bright green vegetation and distinct leaves, all thanks to the stunning wide-shot photography of Simon Duggan ('Live Free or Die Hard,' 'The Great Gatsby') and the long list of talented people behind the visual effects. The filmmakers were clearly aiming for something in the tradition of classic sword-and-sandal epics.
When the altruistic orc chieftain Durotan (voiced by Toby Kebbell) sees his pregnant wife give birth to their son, there is a visible softness to his demeanor and a sincere show of worry in his eyes at the thought the newborn might be dead. Despite being just as detailed and near photo-realistic, other characters come off much too cartoonish, which might have more to do with their being two-dimensional archetypes. The powerful warlock Gul'dan (Daniel Wu) is standard desire-driven evildoer while his henchman Blackhand (Clancy Brown) will predictably see the error of his ways. However, Durotan is quite expressive in his concern over the senseless killing of innocents and manages to reveal a trustworthy face when attempting to strike peace with the humans.
On the other hand, the excessive reliance on CGI is also evidence of an unfortunate aftermath. The filmmakers forgot to inject the plot with real people. Granted, there are plenty of real actors stealing valuable screen time from the far prettier pictures — including the orcs! — but there's nothing in Charles Leavitt's script that engages audiences enough to feel the gravity of humans struggling against the odds.
Instead, we're made to suffer the company of stock characters functioning as generic plot devices. Dominic Cooper as King Llane Wrynn just scowls at those wiser than him and when surveying the landscape, which in reality, he's staring at either empty space or a green screen. And it shows in his face. As the naturally gifted mage Khadgar, Ben Schnetzer is the typical apprentice who will eventually prove his worth right at the moment the plot demands him to. Meanwhile, a stiff and dry Ben Foster is a bargain-bin Merlin who gives away the supposed twist halfway into the movie. Travis Fimmel, channeling the dramatic chops of Christopher Lambert as the knight in shining armor, is meant as the central hero simply because he's a single father. But his relationship with his son is so thinly veiled that a key moment between them feels tedious and insultingly heavy-handed.
The only character in 'Warcraft' with anything genuine to offer is a headstrong half-orc slave played by Paula Patton, who expresses a great deal more in one look than in any line uttered by her fellow cast members. It's a sad day indeed when fantasy characters, even those generated by a bunch of 1s and 0s, show more emotion than their real-life human counterparts.
Partial blame must also be pointed at the movie's director, Duncan Jones, son of the late rock legend David Bowie. In his two previous efforts, he demonstrated a talent and craftsmanship for intelligent sci-fi thrillers, but here, he fails to even get this story off the ground or build towards an exciting conclusion with any kind of momentum. The skill for devising large-scale battle sequences is evident throughout, but the spectacular action on display is ultimately a stale, shallow spectacle because viewers have little reason to care. Jones and his team placed more effort on sly, wink-wink references to please the fans — aerial shots of battles in the villages look as though directly pulled from the PC game — than on anything else, forcing those unfamiliar with this multiplayer universe to sit on the sidelines bored out of their gorged without anyone to root for.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Universal Studios Home Entertainment brings 'Warcraft' to Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack with an UltraViolet Digital Copy code. Housed inside a blue, eco-elite keepcase with a glossy, lightly embossed slipcover, the Region Free, BD50 disc sits comfortably opposite a DVD-9 copy of the film. The flyer inside also includes codes for downloading related 'Warcraft' games and a bonus digital movie. At startup, viewers can skip various trailers before being greeted by the standard menu screen with the usual options, full-motion clips and music.
Shot entirely on digital cameras, the fantasy action-adventure epic declares war on Blu-ray with a stunningly beautiful, reference-quality 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. Unfortunately, there is one very minor snag worth mentioning. Likely due to the way it was filmed in conjunction to the extensive amount of CGI, the video reveals a few, near-negligible instances of banding, most apparent during the closing credit sequence. Thankfully, such occurrences are not egregious enough to distract from an otherwise stellar presentation.
On as more positive note, the 2.40:1 image is razor-sharp with clean, distinct lines in the trees of Azeroth, the stone architecture of Stormwind and the orc camps throughout. Most impressive is seeing the finer details in the armor of humans and the coarse, textured fabrics in the orc clothing. Facial complexions are often extraordinarily revealing while the animated creatures also show the tiniest wrinkle, pore and blemish in their rough, weathered faces.
Richly-saturated primaries are vivid and energetic, and softer secondary hues supply a great deal warmth and realism to the CG visuals. In fact, the wide-array of colors from beginning to end is really one of the presentation's strongest and most appealing aspects. Crisp, spot-on contrast complements the photography with a bright, spirited quality, allowing for excellent visibility in the far distance where viewers can plainly make out the difference between the trees covering the hillsides. Black levels are accurate and inky, furnishing the high-def transfer with dark, penetrating shadows and a lovely, three-dimensional cinematic appearance.
The planet-jumping orcs wail their war clans together with an equally outstanding, near-reference Dolby Atmos soundtrack that's sure to energize fans and shake the house down.
From the opening moments, as Ramin Djawadi's score slowly swells into all the speakers, viewers will be immersed with the sounds of battle cries, the roar of a fire inside a tent and a horde of grunting conversations all around. The wildlife of Azeroth is occasionally employed with notable directionality while other ambient effects serve to generate an awesome, enveloping experience. For those unequipped for the new codec, the Dolby TrueHD 7.1 version comes with several demo-worthy moments, most notably during the massive battle in the last half hour of the movie.
But those ready for the object-based audio format might feel a tad disappointed with the amount of activity in the ceiling speakers. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty to enjoy, subtle noises and voices that travel above the listening area for a satisfying dome-like soundfield. The best moments are in the first half, such as when Draka is about to give birth and her cries flawlessly move from the front heights to directly above the viewer, or when Anduin first walks up the stairs in Karazhan to meet Medivh and Arcane magic can be clearly heard swirling overhead. The issue is with the lack of similar activity during battle sequences. A various noises and the cries of defeated characters are present, but they are far and few in between to feel immersive, leaving the final fight between humans and orcs a tad wanting for an Atmos track.
However, the design manages to please nonetheless with an expansive and broad soundstage that provides the visuals with a great sense of space and presence. With splendid channel separation and balance, imaging is terrifically engaging with the majority of the activity fluidly moving from one side of the screen to the other and into the top front heights for a satisfying half-dome effect. While vocals are precise and distinct even during the loudest segments, the lossless mix displays rich, detailed clarity between the highs and mids, and a palpable low-end delivers a might, wall-rattling punch when called upon with a couple ultra-low blows for good measure (bass chart).
With incredible, stunning detail and fantastical battle sequences that should energize viewers, 'Warcraft' erupts on the silver screen with a massive thud and the emotional excitement of a snail's race. Hitting cinemas a decade too late, the adaptation directed by Duncan Jones was a box office bomb and lacked any sense of adventure to make it memorable, let alone worth watching. The Blu-ray arrives with a strikingly beautiful, reference quality video and an equally excellent Atmos audio presentation. With a strong, healthy collection of supplements, the overall package is sure to please the most loyal and forgiven fans.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.