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film review

The CGI effects in Warcraft, starring Ruth Negga, are purposeful, reproducing the alluring vertigo of gameplay.

The action unfolds in fits and starts against seemingly infinite backdrops crowded with detail, yet only roughly digitized. The point of view shifts rapidly from one character to another while the camera zooms in and out, moving abruptly from vast perspectives to intense close-ups. Does Warcraft remind you of anything? Well, a video game, of course.

It is easy to mock Warcraft. After all, it's a movie that wants you to empathize with a bunch of meathead orcs, each one sporting a pair of curling tusks on his lower lip. Plus it is based on a video-game franchise that is also painfully long in the tooth. The American press was predicting a massive flop even before the movie screened for critics this week (while condescending to note that it is already playing very well in China).

But to point to the movie's obvious limitations seems to miss what is important here: With Warcraft, British director Duncan Jones, himself an avid gamer and a director building a strong reputation for smart sci-fi (Moon; Source Code), seeks to honour not merely the broad outlines of Warcraft's orcs vs. humans storyline, but also the visual and narrative experience of a video game.

Of course, a movie isn't interactive and most game adaptations – it is a smallish field with a poor reputation – attempt to cash in on popular properties by simply trading off the lure of interactivity for the delights of big action on a big screen. Jones's much more intelligent and aesthetic approach to the problem is not entirely new – the Resident Evil franchise has been credited with successfully reflecting the video-game sensibility – but it does make Warcraft visually interesting throughout.

As human characters appear against patently computerized backgrounds, or the camera pulls back to reveal impossibly vast canyons, towering cliffs or dazzling cities, the effect is reminiscent of the shimmering vistas of those ghastly Clone Wars episodes in the Star Wars franchise back when filmmakers were drunk on the possibilities of CGI.

But, more than a decade later, the effect here is purposeful, reproducing the alluring vertigo of gameplay. Similarly, the abrupt shifts in camera angles, including both dizzying heights and odd depths – one shot is from beneath an orc's chest as she lies on the ground – seem to mimic the perpetual reloading of images as the player navigates the game.

The story also takes its inspiration from a central aspect of a multi-character game: You can choose which side you want to play. Here, that means we switch continually between the orc story and the human one, sympathizing with both.

As his world shrivels and dies, the orc chieftain, Durotan, must follow an increasingly demented leader through a magic portal into the human world where the orcs can suck life out of humans to replenish their own. On the human side, the warrior Lothar must fight off the orcs to save his king, with help from an erratic magical Guardian, his increasingly confident acolyte, Khadgar, and Garona, the co-operative orc Amazon whom the humans have taken prisoner. (The names are both complicated and silly, but no more so than the Frodos, Gandalfs and Aragorns who populate The Lord of the Rings.)

This narrative is strongly constructed with a workaday plot of sacrifices and betrayals, plus a few hints of the environmentalism that animated James Cameron's Avatar. What is less successful is the actual dialogue as Jones and his co-writer, Charles Leavitt, struggle to find a heightened tone that will fit pseudo-medieval royals without sounding merely pompous. They lurch around a lot in that regard.

The creators do, however, have a nice solution to the language barrier between the two species. The orcs speak in English among themselves, but that becomes incomprehensible orcish when the humans are around. Attempts at humour, on the other hand, fall painfully flat as the writers reach for the kind of smartass repartee that so enlivened the first Star Wars trilogy, but completely fail to grasp it.

The characters are one-dimensional, but this is fantasy fiction not domestic drama. In particular, Dominic Cooper and Ruth Negga have no material with which to fashion the wafer-thin king and queen. Negga's character is then badly shortchanged by the movie's conclusion as Jones, who has flirted with the idea that this realm might not be a patriarchy, quickly abandons the idea. Still, the performances of Travis Fimmel, Toby Kebbell and Paula Patton as the warrior Lothar, the orc hero Durotan and the half-orc/half-woman Garona, all awakening to the evil forces around them, are meaty enough to hold attention.

Ben Schnetzer's counterintuitive performance as the magician-in-training Khadgar also grew on me as his flat, pedestrian tones eventually seemed to take hold of the magical character. Otherwise, the supernatural and, in particular, the bad wizards are unevenly served up by the special effects team with Ben Foster doing an erratic turn as Jesus Christ, a.k.a. the Guardian Medivh. While the orcs are often engrossing and the manifestations of wizardry more or less mysterious, the final effect is badly spoiled when a giant clay golem that looks laughably like the Thing in Fantastic Four blunders into the picture.

Will gamers themselves, steeped in spiralling fantasy worlds enlarged by their own imaginations, find this all too little? They will almost certainly find that the movie, 10 years in the making, comes too late. At the screening I attended, publicists were handing out T-shirts to audience members who could answer skill-testing questions, and it was clear that the crowd had no idea how many versions of Warcraft have been issued by Blizzard Entertainment to date – and didn't really care. Bonus points, though, to the woman who correctly identified the year the first Warcraft game appeared: 1994. Jones's significant achievements in this movie may well die at the North American box office.