In regards to film adaptations, video games have been the toughest to crack. For the most part, we have been raised making our own films when we play the games ourselves. Playing unbeatable levels gives us more drama and excitement than most film adaptation have even been able to give us. Since the 1990s, the Warcraft video games have released more than a dozen strategy-based Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) that have entertained us through the years, so it’s a no-brainer that they would try to adapt this as a film. With the popularity of not only the game, but fantasy films increasing through the years, it would seem like the right time to make an adaptation, so Legendary Pictures gives us Warcraft. The film is directed by Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code), so the sci-fi credentials are there. Unfortunately, the film never really “gets it right” and is best described as a missed opportunity.
The film follows the introduction of two races: the war-driven Orcs, and the Humans of the kingdom of Stormwind in the land of Azeroth, and from their first meeting to their inevitable war between each other. Apparently, all the action in the film takes place before any of the video games did in the Warcraft timeline. The film doesn’t try to pick sides at first, and the beginning of the film focuses on the Orcs, especially the “Hero Orc” Durotan (Toby Kebbell) who leads an Orc clan that is part of a “first wave” into Stormwind from their dying world. The Orcs although they are honor driven, are under the leadership of Gul’dan (Daniel Wu), who is all but twirling his mustache in regards to his evilness. Gul’dan is feared/followed because he is the Only Orc wizard, who can literally steal the life force from someone to use for many undefined purposes, including opening portals between worlds, and he has his sights set on the humans.
On #TeamHuman is Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel) who is a knight for King Wrynn (Dominic Cooper). He is the audience avatar as we follow him the most throughout the film. Although there are other races in Azeroth including Elves, Wizards, Dwarves, we spend most of our time with the humans. While the elves and Dwarves are nameless, we do get to meet two Wizards: Medivh (Ben Foster) and Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer). The younger and more inexperienced Wizard is Khadgar, but he is key to the overall plot of the film in regards to learning his magic and his role in the shape of things to come. The older Wizard has nefarious motivations that are explored throughout the film.
The wildcard in the bunch is half-Orc Garona (Paula Patton), who at first is a part of the Orc army as an enslaved Orc, due to the fact that she is half-Orc. Through the initial skirmished with the humans, she finds herself siding with them and becomes a key ally due to the fact that she knows so much about them. Her inclusion in the film is interesting because it forces her to spend most of the film stuck between two worlds. She’s a half Orc, half human and as a result, both races don’t fully trust her. She doesn’t like the Orcs because of how she was treated for her “otherness,” yet at the same time, she is treated as the enemy by the Humans as well. At any moment, she could switch her allegiances.
The film is a technical achievement. The living and breathing Orcs, although cartoonish in size, are done with amazing CGI wizardry. Not once are you sitting there laughing at how terrible the CGI is. Like Avatar, the film is pretty much 100% green screen, but everything is photo-realistic. Each Orc has their own signature look, even the hundreds of “extras” in the background during the battles. The Orcs ride massive wolves (much like the Orcs from another fantasy film we remember from a decade ago) also. The humans ride massive eagle-like animals that also are a spectacle to look at. The battle scenes are a spectacle to see as we get the chance to see thousands of Orc vs hundreds of Humans clashing weapons. The choreography for the fights is also particularly brutal. Watching the Orc smash humans with the gigantic hammers was both fierce and fantastic. The only time where the CGI somewhat fails is when the Wizards’ powers are on full display. Because they opted to go for colorful magic on display, instead of the usual telekinesis as many fantasy films recently have, it’s distracting and doesn’t look as realistic as many of the other special effects of the film.
While watching the film, you can blatantly tell that the actors were having a tough time acting in a CGI environment opposite CGI creatures. At times, their line delivery seems a bit off, especially in the lead actor of the film, Travis Fimmel, who is not that charismatic and comes off as wooden.
When it comes to the actual story, that’s where the film’s problems arise. Of course, this is a video game film, and given the genre’s less than appealing adaptations, expectations can be somewhat lowered on general principle. Given all that, the writing is not strong. While fans of the Warcraft series may know exactly what is going on, the audience is not really given a great orientation to this world as well. We simply are there almost as an additional character. This movie could have desperately used a prologue to at least give an orientation to the world, the races, and their motivations. The only time things become slightly clear about the world and where all this is taking place is a brief glimpse at a map, and that’s easily forgettable by the next scene.
The film does do a good job trying to display the dynamics and the politics of war. In both the Orc and Human groups, there is division over strategies as well as sinister motivations by different parties. There are Orcs who are good guys, as well as Humans who are bad guys. Roles can change at the drop of a hat. As facts change, so do allegiances. Some of the best fights that had the most tension and the most weight during the film are when Orcs fought other Orcs and Humans battled other Humans. The outcomes of the internal fights raised the stakes for the direction of each group in the larger war. Depending if the “good guy” in each group won or lost, it determined how the war would play out.
Some key plot elements are glared over with no explanation. The Orcs are escaping their dying land and invade Azeroth as a matter of colonization. We never get the feeling as though they have encountered humans and other races as they are taken aback by the humans actually fighting back as well as the Wizards’ magic. However, the half-Orc Garonais is clearly half-human and half-Orc, and so logic would dictate that humans exist where they are from. Towards the end of the film, her parentage is vaguely hinted at, but never fully answered. So did the Orc know about Humans or not?
Towards the end, certain characters make very bone-headed choices that were way out of left field and out of character for them, which it will leave the audiences possibly scratching their heads as to why those choices were made when writing the film. The ending itself comes off quite rushed, with a glaring feeling as though we are missing major scenes. The ending does nothing but sets up the inevitable sequel filmmakers think they will get, which is a dangerous idea to set up a sequel. If the film performs poorly because that means we’ll never get a resolution to the story.
There will surely be some fans who might think that the adaptation is spot on, but some people may leave the film saying “That’s not my Warcraft!”. Focusing too much on the Human vs Orc dynamic makes all the other races involved in the series act very much as background players. While the video game series has more than 10 different races that are all a part of the MMORPG, the film barely scratches the surface of the world and we are stuck with the big two. In fact, we only see other races in the beginning and the end of the film. If the film does well and a sequel is warranted, perhaps there will be more world building and we can see the other races involved.
It’s clear that director Duncan Jones does love the Warcraft video games. There is a certain labor of love on display in the film. The sets are beautiful, the battles are fantastic, and the graphics are impressive. However, sometimes uber-fans aren’t the best people directing things they love. It works for Peter Jackson with Lord of the Rings, but it also backfires, like Peter Jackson with King Kong. This feels as though it’s a film for Warcraft fans and not the general movie going audience. The film is also the indie director’s first big budget blockbuster film, which he also wrote. The film could have used some additional participants in the decision-making process.
The plot of Warcraft is eerily similar to the Transformers franchise in which the evil bad guys have to flee their dying planet by conquering the race of the planet they arrive to. Much like Transformers, much of the film focuses on the spectacle instead of the story. While some critics are calling Warcraft the Battlefield Earth of this century, this isn’t a completely terrible film. If general moviegoers go into theaters expecting the next Lord of the Rings, they will probably leave really disappointed. Video game movies are very hard to make and filmmakers often fall short of what they were trying to accomplish as a result. While the technical wizardry in Warcraft was great, the film does not have the best writing, acting, or story to completely carry the film through. Fans of the game will probably be pleasantly surprised as they will be the few who actually get what’s really going on, but the rest of us will be mildly entertained.