Video game movies have an unfortunate history. The creative minds tasked with bringing these virtual worlds to the big screen, for whatever reason, just haven’t been able to figure it out. For a while, the technology wasn’t there and the stories themselves weren’t deep enough. Looking at you, Super Mario Bros. But today’s day and age hosts both the greatest cinematic technology and greatest video game storytelling we’ve ever seen.
The time for excuses expired almost a decade ago. The second BioShock existed, gaming’s excuse well ran dry. I still attribute the genre’s disappointing results to game selection. For whatever reason, studios won’t make Uncharted, Metal Gear Solid, The Last of Us or Grand Theft Auto. But a Kanye-approved Assassin’s Creed hits theaters in a few short months, and another Resident Evil or Hitman is exactly what we need. This time around, the linear structure of movie storytelling was applied to arguably the least linear game of all time. So here’s Warcraft.
You don’t need to see too much of Warcraft before understanding exactly what you’re going to get. The sooner you forget the infinitely better material elsewhere in this genre, the sooner you can kick back and have some fun. Did it help that I watched Warcraft directly between the last two episodes of Game of Thrones? Probably not. As a disclaimer, it’s important to note that I’ve never played the game itself. I can see that enhancing a viewer’s experience, but I personally get way more defensive of a property I’m passionate about and actually feel offended when the film doesn’t do the source material justice. Batman v. Superman might be better than this movie, but I certainly left a lot angrier. So from a neutral perspective, Warcraft is perfectly mediocre and offers a few glimpses of fun. Spoilers lie ahead as we look into some of that fun.
The visual style was less believable, but deliberately so. This isn’t a grounded fantasy like The Lord of the Rings. As a matter of fact, try to forget The Lord of the Rings even exists if you want to like Warcraft. This one’s more of a Hobbit. While some of the terminology is obviously similar, this is a very different universe. Some of the costumes, particularly the mages, looked like attire you’d see at Comic Con. The swords didn’t always feel metal, if that makes any sense. The CGI on the Orcs was actually very impressive, breathing life into characters that often felt more real than their human counterparts. Toby Kebbell’s Durotan was by far the most likeable and interesting character in the movie. I’ve heard great things about Travis Fimmel on Vikings, a show I’m tempted to pick up sometime soon. As Lothar, he did show some occasional charisma. But most of the hero’s persona fell into a paint-by-numbers trap that felt like bits and pieces borrowed from any other generic action hero. Some better dialogue throughout would’ve developed these characters, which is desperately needed when you make a movie about a game in which you create your own.
Paula Patton is an underutilized action star but, aside from looking good in green, Warcraft didn’t do much to make the rest of the movie world see that. Her accent was strangely inconsistent, as were a few in this movie, which probably wasn’t helped by her tusks. The other Orcs were CGI, and were therefore able to enunciate properly. But poor Paula had to half-lisp her way through clumsy mouth prosthetics. That’s a difficult issue to avoid, given the half-breed nature of her character, but serves as an example of the film’s failure to iron out some of the finer details. I enjoy the fact that someone behind the scenes of Preacher evidently had a hand in this, and Dominic Cooper/Ruth Negga made a fine royal couple. If Warcraft had Preacher’s knack for characterization, we’d have a very different movie.
One issue even the most shameless apologist might have with Warcraft was the (in hindsight) misleading trailer and premise. I was under the very simple assumption that two leaders would unite men and Orcs to at least start bringing an end to a lengthy history of violence. Instead, the current conflict between these two sides is fairly new. The two leads don’t communicate at all, much less team up for the buddy-movie angle that would’ve at least delivered some easy enjoyment. Orcs don’t even speak English, despite the fact that we hear their speech as English, which is revealed through a sloppy translation scene between the two sides. I prefer this to subtitles, but the concept itself was poorly executed. So a short-lived feud doesn’t even end in any sort of epic alliance. Either a feeling of eternal warfare or an unlikely unity would’ve made for an interesting dynamic, and Warcraft ends up having neither.
Some of Warcraft’s storytelling decisions are actually brave and different, which is refreshing to see from the fantasy genre. But the issue again comes down to execution. I respect them for not wrapping the film up in a neat little bow. However, what could’ve been an excitingly open-ended conclusion instead comes across as a shockingly arrogant declaration that this movie will have a sequel. Of course they kill the best character just as the film hits the home stretch, and again that’s a bold move I can support. But the execution is similarly botched. Durotan’s sacrifice is genius as a political move to rally the Orcs against the obviously evil Gul’dan. We get a solid gladiator match, culminating in a death scene that could’ve actually given fans a benign case of the feels. Instead, the momentous death is skimmed over and the Orcs essentially forget what they just saw once Gul’dan threatens them. Regardless of the threat he poses, there is no way that Orc Ermac can survive an entire stampede of his angry followers. Durotan’s death ultimately has zero effect on the plot, which is criminally disappointing.
The King’s death ends up being the one that actually propels the franchise forward. And it comes at the tail end of a CGI orgy that offers very little quality action. I actually found the earlier fight in the forest to be much more fun in terms of showcasing what these characters are capable of and delivering good fight scenes. The combat was clean, the power of mages was highlighted, and those wolves were awesome. To top off the disappointing final battle, Lothar ends what should’ve been another great trial by combat with a cup-check. That fight was to avenge his son; it shouldn’t be a punch line. Surprise one-shot knockouts do have their value. Who doesn’t love the new Bourne movie’s trailer when Matt Damon left hooks that guy into oblivion? But this particular scene would’ve been better served by a legitimate duel between two formidable characters. A movie about Warcraft, if nothing else, should deliver on the large-scale action.
Overall, I wouldn’t pretend this is a quality film but I did find myself enjoying Warcraft more as time went on. Their attempts to include some humor and personality were appreciated. You can tell there’s a vision here that combines fun with intensity, but the movie does fail to execute these solid ideas. As a side note, I sat next to some particularly rude audience members for this movie. They seemed to be fans of the game, and scoffed their way through almost every scene while whispering to mock some of the sloppier dialogue. I evidently didn’t love the movie either, but you owe it to the filmmakers to be respectful and give movies a shot from start to finish. When you go to the movies, shut up. At least for the people around you. Then go home and complain about it on your blog, you know, like an adult. I’d happily go see a Warcraft 2 in theaters to see if they could tighten up some screws and improve the formula. I certainly don’t think video game movies are in any more or less trouble than they were prior to this release, and we’ll be back here before you know it having this discussion again after Assassin’s Creed. I’d also happily let a studio hire me to copy and paste the Last of Us screenplay onto a word document, email it to Sony, and break the gaming movie curse in about five minutes.