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The ‘Warcraft’ Movie Is Taking a Great Sci-Fi Director Down With It

Warcraft is one of the better movies based on a video game, but that’s not saying much.

by Emanuel Maiberg
May 29 2016, 2:00pm

Image: Universal Studios

I really hope that director Duncan Jones survives the release of his latest movie, Warcraft.

The fantasy epic based on Blizzard's video games is currently the subject of a dunking contest between movie critics.

The Wrap said viewers can "Imagine Battlefield Earth without the verve, or the unintentional comedy," and Variety said "The final product brings to mind those animated advertisements for iPhone app games." Overall, the movie currently has a rating of 33 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.

I saw the movie last week and I can assure you that the dunking is well deserved. The kindest thing I can say about Warcraft is that it's not boring, but that's mostly because I was too busy trying to make sense of its tornado of fantasy names, CGI faces, and ludicrous plot twists.

The Warcraft universe started as a series of real-time strategy games but was turned into a movie because of the massively successful massively multiplayer online (MMO) game World of Warcraft. At one point, over 12 million people were paying a monthly fee of $15-ish to visit World of Warcraft's land of Azeroth. These players are going to be hugely disappointed and probably angry that this movie "ruined" their favorite game, much in the same way fans are afraid the new Ghostbusters will ruin the original because it stars women now.

Personally, I'm more worried Warcraft will damage its director, Duncan Jones. A core audience of millions will continue to play World of Warcraft, millions more are playing its spin-off card game Hearthstone, and if Blizzard ever decided to make another Warcraft real-time strategy game, I'll be the first one in line to get it.

Duncan Jones, on the other hand, was only getting started on a very promising career. His first movie, Moon, was about the sole employee (Sam Rockwell) on a moonbase, and how humanity would manage to keep such a station staffed in the future. His second movie, Source Code, was about a man (Jake Gyllenhaal) time traveling back to and dying in the same terrorist attack on a train, over and over again, in an attempt to stop it (imagine Groundhog Day but serious instead of funny). Both were flawed but really interesting science fiction movies. They took on big, futuristic ideas, with grounded, relatable characters as opposed to action movie heroes, which is something we here at Motherboard can appreciate.

For his third film, Jones decided to take on Warcraft and failed, which is not surprising. Warcraft has sprawling lore covering eons of Azeroth's history. Much like Warhammer: 40,000 lore or the Bible, it's the kind of story that's best experienced by clicking around a wiki.

The Warcraft movie jumps into the story at the pivotal moment the race of orcs escape their dying world to enter Azeroth. Garona, who's half orc and half human (just...don't ask me, okay? Read her wiki), tries to prevent the inevitable war between humans and orcs by bringing their respective leaders to the negotiation table: the human King Llane and the orc chieftain Durotan. Things don't go as planned. There's a wizard. There's a lot of super loud fantasy action in 3D. There are magic missiles, axes, griffins, and of course the trademark of all fantasy films since The Lord of The Rings movies: two armies running into each other across the battlefield.

It all looks sufficiently bad ass and shiney, and when compared to every single movie based on a video game until now, Warcraft is easily one of the best. Compared to any other movies you might want to watch this summer, it sucks. Performances are stilted because everyone is acting in front of a green screen, character motivations make little sense, and just keeping track of what is happening and why at any given moment is hard. I pity the people who will attempt to see this movie without any previous knowledge of Warcraft. I had a hard time keeping up with it and I've played all those games and clicked around that wiki many times before.

Image: Universal Studios.

So did Jones, who's apparently a huge World of Warcraft player and pushed to get this movie made. This giant, reportedly $100 million movie is a passion project. A Warcraft fan basically couldn't ask for a better director to do this adaptation and it still didn't work. Games are games. Their stories are in service play. They were never designed to be stories audiences absorb passively. Adapting Warcraft for the screen makes about as much sense as trying to make a movie out of Tetris (which is an actual thing that is happening!). It doesn't work.

I'm sure it made way more sense at the time. Blizzard first announced it was making the movie in 2006, when World of Warcraft was still reaching the peak of its popularity and the world was still clamoring for more epic fantasy movies like Lord of the Rings. Today, World of Warcraft subscriber numbers are so low Blizzard is no longer reporting them. Fantasy movies is no longer in vogue unless they star a cast of hot teens.

But just because everyone so far seems to agree that Warcraft is bad doesn't mean it won't make money. Fantasy epics in general tend to do very well globally, and Warcraft specifically is already breaking ticket presales records in China. I hope it makes a lot money, but not because I'm a Blizzard or Warcraft fan. I don't care how this movie represents that universe. I just don't want this dumb movie to take one of the few good science fiction directors working today down with it.

If he survives Warcraft, hopefully Jones got whatever this was out of his system and can now go back to making cool science fiction movies again.