Near the end of “Warcraft” — an elaborate, exhausting cinematic collision of humans and Orcs, live actors and digital extras, geek enthusiasms and multiplex dollars — the director Duncan Jones grants us a breather from all the thundering mayhem. A hooded oracle with an uncanny (and unbilled) resemblance to Glenn Close emerges from the shadows to deliver some cryptic words of wisdom: “From light comes darkness, and from darkness, light.”
There are a few different ways to read this prophecy. Is it a metaphor for the intimate coupling of good and evil on this epic canvas? An assurance that the end is coming and, with it, the lights that will guide your relieved exit from the theater? A promise that — even without the cheat sheet supplied by the thoughtful folks at Universal Pictures — the story’s impenetrable tangle of names and lineages, far-flung realms and otherworldly species will eventually be made clear to the uninitiated?
There are stretches of tedium in this lumpy and derivative mythology, to be sure. But there are also immersive IMAX 3-D backdrops, striking ambiguities and irresistible moments of straight-faced lunacy. The line between hack work and labor of love may be perilously thin, but you can sense the difference in the way Jones earnestly, wholeheartedly embraces the magic that powers this realm: Not since the last “Harry Potter” movie have you seen this many wizards with dazzling CGI lightning bolts crackling at their fingertips. Missteps and all, the movie pulses with a true believer’s conviction.
That’s reassuring, as it would otherwise be hard to imagine a more drastic or puzzling leap than the one Jones has made over the course of three movies — from the deft, minimalist science fiction of his 2009 debut, “Moon,” to this frenzied, maximalist sword-and-sorcery circus. (In between came “Source Code,” his divertingly clever brainteaser starring Jake Gyllenhaal.) Yet even within the confines and compromises of this studio-engineered behemoth — the latest high-priced Hollywood attempt to transmute an interactive brand into box-office gold — there are telltale signs of a filmmaker’s vision.
Working from a screenplay by Charles Leavitt (the writer of last year’s forgettable fantasy “Seventh Son”), Jones has extended one of his recurring dramatic themes by plunging us once more into a world of uncertain allegiances and dubious systems of power. The world in this case is Azeroth, a realm whose green forests and towering citadels are not too far removed, visually or conceptually, from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, with which it shares a similarly diverse population of humans, elves, dwarfs and Orcs.
Those Orcs — a horde of hulking brutes with foul tempers, huge tusks and awesome piercings — actually hail from a kingdom called Draenor (so named, according to legend, for its exceptional plumbing), but have now chosen to invade the peaceful lands of Azeroth through a giant cross-dimensional portal. They are led by the evil Gul’dan (Daniel Wu, not that you can tell beneath the horns), who plans to conquer Azeroth using the Fel, a form of magic so dark and corruptive it runs the risk of destroying everyone and everything before the sequel arrives.
Trying to work against Gul’dan and save his people is the wise and well-muscled Durotan (Toby Kebbell), a respected Orc chieftain whose wife, Draka (Anna Galvin), is about to give birth. The eventual fate of their improbably cute, pointy-eared infant suggests the filmmakers are not above plundering the Old Testament, along with “The Lord of the Rings,” “Star Wars” and other seminal pop mythologies. The film owes a particular debt to James Cameron’s “Avatar” — not only in its skillful use of performance-capture technology to bring a fictional race to credible life (Kebbell’s Durotan is an expressive standout), but also in the way it complicates our sympathies where its human characters are concerned.
Lothar’s chief nemesis is an all-powerful enchanter known as the Guardian, whose own private dabblings with the Fel — basically the Dark Side of the Force, but with fewer syllables — do not bode well for humankind. (The Guardian’s inevitable turn toward treachery is perhaps signaled too early by the fact that he’s played by Ben Foster.) Elsewhere, Dominic Cooper makes a wanly regal king of Azeroth, while Ben Schnetzer is a nicely impetuous Khadgar, a gifted young sorcerer following his own difficult destiny.
Straddling the two opposing races is Garona, a half-Orc, half-human who is played, in the flesh and sans performance-capture, by a green-skinned Paula Patton. Forced to align herself with Lothar and his companions, Garona is the most conflicted of the movie’s major characters, initially scornful yet increasingly accepting of her captors’ human vulnerability. Attentive fans may well divine some similarities between Garona and Gamora, the similarly green-hued heroine played by Zoe Saldana in “Guardians of the Galaxy.” They may even be inclined to remark on a dubious trend of talented black actresses having to make like Margaret Hamilton in “The Wizard of Oz.”
I’ll leave it to more advanced “Warcraft” scholars to parse the movie’s tricky racial politics, which are offset to some degree by the casting of Ruth Negga as Azeroth’s wise and compassionate queen. Ridiculous as it might seem, Jones actually invites this level of scrutiny: His movie seeks to overturn the familiar humans-good, beasties-bad formula, and to show that no side can claim to be exclusively good or evil.
As heads get smashed and limbs get severed during the climactic battle — goosed by the surge and sweep of the score by composer Ramin Djawadi (“Game of Thrones”) — your mind might start casting about, as mine did, for a real-world political subtext. Are we supposed to infer something from the characters’ clashing shades of red and blue war paint? Is Gul’dan, with his callous disregard for his followers, the Orc version of Donald Trump? (Is there even a difference?) The film, which ends mid-battle and with an eye on the franchise horizon, doesn’t say. Maybe Glenn Close already said it all.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy violence
Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes
Playing: In wide release