NEW YORK (CNS) — Anyone who has ever doubted the genius of Catholic novelist J.R.R. Tolkien need look no further than the heavy-handed video game adaptation “Warcraft” (Universal) for confirmation of his gifts.

Populated by orcs, wizards, dwarves and elves, as well as more or less ordinary human beings, director and co-writer Duncan Jones’ film inevitably invites comparison with Tolkien’s beloved tales.

But Azeroth, the fantasy world of the movie, is no Middle-earth. And, while Jones’ script, penned with Charles Leavitt, deals with a theme central to Tolkien’s work — namely, the corrupting effect of excessive power — the result is not the intriguing ambiguity the Oxford don-turned-author managed to achieve but, frankly, an unmemorable mess.

One problem undermining the proceedings is that Warcraft’s murderous orcs are not only, as a general rule, morally deficient barbarians, they’re also ugly and hard to understand. The latter fault is a natural result of the fact that they come equipped with huge pointy fangs.

Aside from the professional interest this might arouse among orthodontists in the audience, orcs do not make very engaging company, and they’re given far too much screen time.

They are integral to the plot, however, which centers on the conflict kicked off when an army of orcs, facing destruction on their home planet, uses a magic portal to reach Azeroth. Led by evil mage Gul’dan (Daniel Wu), this vanguard of invaders hopes to colonize the previously peaceful realm.

They also intend to construct another gateway in order to transport the orcs they left behind. To do that, they need to take a host of prisoners and suck the life force out of them.

Heading the home team in opposition to this wicked plan are wise King Llane Wrynn (Dominic Cooper), gallant knight Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel) and two practitioners of good magic, veteran spell-caster Medivh (Ben Foster) and sorcerer’s apprentice Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer). They’re backed up by the guidance of Garona (Paula Patton), an orc half-breed whose mistreatment at the hands of her own kind has made her anxious to thwart them.

Shifting loyalties — especially those of Durotan (Toby Kebbell), an orc warrior whose devotion to family life makes him redeemable; keep the pot boiling. And there are, admittedly, lessons here about jumping to the conclusion that the only good orc is a dead one. Call it intergalactic tolerance. There’s even a biblical allusion as Durotan’s baby son has an experience that parallels that of the infant Moses.

But in the end, the whole thing bubbles over and steams rapidly away.

As for the movie’s appropriate demographic, there’s a welcome absence of vulgar language and the combat is generally stylized. But at least two of the casualties meet graphic ends that, though fleeting, do raise the bar in terms of nastiness. Given the overall restraint, however, at least some parents may feel comfortable allowing mature teens to attend.

The film contains pervasive mayhem but with almost no blood, momentary gruesome violence, scenes of torment, a painful birth and a couple of sexual references. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.


Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.