A magical world

123 min. | PG-13

By some measurements, video games have overtaken movies in popularity—or at least in entertainment dollars spent. It’s little wonder these games have become source material for films. Warcraft, has been in the works for 10 years, which is seldom a good sign. But writer-director Duncan Jones, best known for the low-key psychological science fiction film Moon, turned the game into a compelling story, visualized with better-than-usual special effects and acted with sufficient sympathy.

Warcraft can be described as the abandoned child of J.R.R. Tolkien, raised by fans of the cult fantasy magazine Heavy Metal and fed on a diet of Star Wars metaphysics. A quasi-medieval world with place names such as Elwynn Forest and Stormwind, populated by humans and elves, is invaded by orcs, creatures with the torsos of professional wrestlers, tusk-like teeth and Vulcan ears. They live in another world, an ecologically blighted place, and cross the barrier through a Great Gate invoked by black magic whose energy is drawn from captive souls.

The screenplay’s brilliant touch is to make the orcs human-like in their emotions. Good and bad just like people, they live by a tribal code of honor but are misled by Gul’dan, an evil sorcerer.

The quarreling kingdoms of humans and elves are put in hand-to-hand combat with these oversized muscular foes, but in addition to swords, they have developed “boom sticks” (pistols) and have their own sorcerer, Merdivh. However, Merdivh seems a bit tortured, troubled by the power he has seen. In Warcraft it is called “the Fel,” but you can insert the Dark Side of the Force, and wonder whether it has seduced him.

The hero knight, Lothar, is steadfast, clear-eyed and the only character with a glimmer of humor. He works in tandem with a young sorcerer’s apprentice learning the ways of magic. They’re assisted by a renegade orc, the exotically beautiful Garona. She isn’t the only orc who suspects that Gul’dan’s dark magic is destroying everything it touches.

The orcs are brought to vivid life by motion capture performances. The 3D effects puts the viewer in the action and some of the CGI conjures a sense of wonder. The story has obvious mythic roots and plenty of yarns to spin in any future sequel.