I remember a time back in 2006 when the world was obsessed with the phenomenon of World of Warcraft, an MMORPG that brought multiplayer online gaming into the mainstream. A lot of my friends played it, and I could not get them to shut up about it despite my best efforts. My experience with the games is limited to a two week trial I played and the classic South Park episode that spoofed it. There is no denying the franchise’s incredible popularity and cultural importance, and still today the community is large and active. The popular game franchise has now become a major blockbuster motion picture, directed and co-written by self-confessed WoW fan Duncan Jones whose directorial credits are limited to two great low budget sci-fi flicks, Moon and Source Code. The question is, will it be able to conquer the curse that has plagued every single atrocious video game adaptation from Max Payne to Prince of Persia?
In the land of Azeroth, Alliance lands are being terrorised by a strange new race of creature called orcs. These orcs have used a dark source of magic called the fel to escape their dying world of Draenor and conquer Azeroth. It’s up to Sir Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel) and young mage Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) who, with the aid of half-orc Garona (Paula Patton) must protect their land from this foreign incursion. Meanwhile, unrest is brewing within the orc camp as Durotan (Toby Kebbell), chieftain of the Frostwolf clan, begins to grow distrustful of orc warlock Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) and decides to make a tentative truce with the humans in order to save his people from the dark power of the fel.
If I got anything wrong in that little synopsis, I apologize and I’m sure Warcraft fans will be quick to correct me. And if I did, it’s the film’s fault for doing such a poor job of explaining itself. High fantasy is an incredibly hard genre to do on film for this very reason, especially in a film that’s as short as two hours. You have to essentially introduce your audience to a whole new world filled with its own internal lore and rules while also delivering a satisfying story and characters. It’s something that’s easy enough to do in a 500 page long book or a long-running TV series (there’s a reason Game of Thrones needs 10 episodes a year to tell its story) but it’s nearly impossible to do on film with the notable exception of The Lord of The Rings. Warcraft really struggles in its first half, as I found it a little hard to understand what exactly was happening. I’m no stranger to fantasy, so I was able to piece together enough information to get by, but even then I had to rely on my friend, a Warcraft fan, who whispered some clarifications to me as I sat scratching my head in the theater. The orc side of the story is fairly simple, and as such it was the most immediately interesting part of the film: it’s when the film switches to the human perspective that I started to feel lost. We’re introduced to Anduin Lothar without any indication of who he is or what position he holds within the Alliance aside from being brother to Queen Taria Wrynn (Ruth Negga), and follow him as he quickly travels from location to location while characters vomit out names of places, things and people so fast you barely have time to remember them. I’m sure fans of the games got a real kick out of seeing the classic locations brought to life on screen, but for someone new to this world it felt quite disorienting.
Director Duncan Jones has said that a 45 minute chunk of the film was cut out in order to keep it shorter for its theatrical run, and I felt the absence of that content. It was like I was reading a book that had pages randomly torn out. The film moves at a frantic pace and gives very little time for characters to breath. As a result, I felt like I was only getting the cliff notes version of a much larger story, and that’s a shame considering how interesting all the various bits of lore and character back-story were. Take Khadgar for example, a mage who decided to rebel against the established order of mages. His back-story is only briefly mentioned in the rare moments characters talk to each other about their pasts, and the important role he plays later in the film kind of comes out of nowhere. I also feel like the film could have done a better job of explaining the intricacies of how magic worked, because to me it essentially came down to “green magic bad, blue magic good”. At the end of the day, I just wanted more story, and I hope that extended version makes its way to Bluray one day.
But after the film does its best at introducing this world in its first half, it then focuses on the core conflict between the orcs and humans, and that’s where Warcraft really shines. The humans are presented to us as the de-facto good guys of the film, but the orcs are given enough depth and humanity for them to feel like much more than simply villains. You really get to understand why they are doing what they do and the film immerses you in their war focused culture. Durotan’s motivations in particular are very honourable. He’s a family man who will do anything to protect his people, even if it means betraying his leaders. The character of Garona was also a highlight, as her struggle to figure out where she fits in as a half-orc – detested by orcs and untrustworthy to the humans – was really complex and well handled and leads to a great pay-off towards the film’s end.
Despite her unnecessary and forced romance with Lothar, Garona and Durotan really are the only characters in the film that feel fully realised and they undergo clear transformations from beginning to end. The same can’t be said for most of the humans though. The prime example of that is King Llane Wrynn (Dominic Cooper), a total pushover who lets himself be influenced by everyone around him for most of the film, and only becomes an interesting character in the last battle where he leads his troops against The Horde. The third act of Warcraft is spectacular and well worth sitting through the confusing moments of the beginning. It has twice as much character development as the first two-thirds of the film and does an excellent job of setting up potential sequels, all while delivering a very satisfying battle.
The orcs themselves are menacing and imposing, and beautifully brought to life by the special effects team. Gul’dan looked a little cartoonish at times, but that’s only when you see him up-close. The world is also populated with cool looking creatures and the sweeping shots of the landscapes are gorgeous. For a PG-13 film, Warcraft is pretty damn brutal, as every blow from a warhammer or sword hits with crushing force, and you can feel the bones breaking from the hits. Ramin Djawadi’s score is fittingly epic, and perfectly fits the fantastical tone of the film. What else would you expect from the composer of Game of Throne’s score? On a technical level, Warcraft is beyond reproach.
The acting ranges from great to bad, with the motion captured actors portraying the orcs delivering the best performances. Toby Kebbell is no stranger to this medium of acting, having done terrific work as the CGI ape Koba in Dawn of The Planet of The Apes, and the various other orc roles are done just as well. Paula Patton does the best she can under all the makeup, but there were still moments where she felt a little silly. I’m a huge Travis Fimmel fan from his work as Ragnar Lothbrok on Vikings where he shows a ton of charisma and screen presence, but his performance here felt lacking. A lot of that has to do with the fact that he really isn’t given much to do besides be the archetypical milk toast hero character and is never given a chance to display his comedic side. Lothar is given absolutely no distinguishing qualities, and the relationship between him and his son was painfully cliché and predictable. In a film full of colorful characters and big performances, he simply faded into the background. As for Ben Foster as the all-powerful mage Medivh, I could not tell if what he was doing was brilliant or cartoonish (probably a mix of both) but for better or worse he always had my attention.
Warcraft’s main goal was to please fans of the games, and if my Warcraft playing friends’ thoughts on the film are of any indication, it has succeeded at that in almost every respect. Duncan Jones and company were clearly huge fans of the game franchise and put all their love into this project, and the results are unquestionable. Newcomers, however, better be ready to pay close attention in order to understand what’s happening, and a base knowledge of fantasy fiction is almost a requirement. But once you get past the initial confusion and weak human characters, you will be rewarded with some brutal battles, breathtaking effects and a great third act. My only hope is that the Assassin’s Creed film slated for release later this year does as well by its fans as Warcraft has, because that’s a game franchise that holds a very special place in my heart. As it stands, Warcraft is the best video game based film out right now, and I hope it sets an example for all those to come.