I’m not entirely sure how the “layman” responds to Warcraft. How does someone who has never interacted with one of the RTS games or World of Warcraft or even Hearthstone ingest this film? I personally feel like every person I know has at least had exposure to the concept of World of Warcraft and its two warring factions, the Alliance and the Horde, prominently represented by the Humans and Orcs respectively. It’s really hard to separate that viewpoint, that knowledge of the “franchise” that’s so ingrained into me and those I consider friends.
For personal reference, I was just barely 2 years old when Warcraft came out for MS-DOS. I was nearly 10 when Warcraft III came out, and I barely remember a world where I had a PC (or an account on the “family computer”) that didn’t have Warcraft III installed on it. I still have a copy on my big gaming laptop to this day, in case I feel nostalgic and want to try to beat the campaign all over again. I played a bit of World of Warcraft when it first came out, thinking it would be like Warcraft III, but I never really go into it and I don’t think I’ve ever levelled a character past 20, despite installing that monstrosity on my computer at least twice since that first outting back in 2004. And ever since Hearthstone has been available on phones, I’ve played that at least once every three days for a while now.
So what all this means is that while I am very familiar with the Warcraft lore, having enjoyed the adventures of Thrall and company during the Third War and the second invasion of the Burning Legion, I’m not what you’d call a big fan, like some of my friends who have been in Guilds with maxed out characters or even some older fans who have been with Warcraft since the beginning in 1994. I have absorbed the story and the familiarity with the characters continued existence just from existing in the social circles that I frequent, but I don’t necessarily love them devotedly.
Which is a whole lot of preamble to me saying that the Warcraft movie is fine. It’s not great, it’s not horrible, it’s just fine.
The story is familiar to those who’ve been exposed to the lore over the years. The warlock Gul’Dan leads the Orcish Horde from their dying world of Draenor through a dark portal to the world of Azeroth, where they come into conflict with the humans of Stormwind. As with the games, this conflict is played very even handedly, with good and evil elements on both the Orc and Human sides. And as many people have pointed out, there is a thematic subtext here, with the Orcs as refugees and the Humans being unwilling hosts. It’s a strong place to start what will hopefully be a saga of Warcraft movies. As a fan, I wouldn’t have wanted them to skip ahead to basically any other point in the timeline, since the other sprawling stories that take place on and around Azeroth are all rooted in this beginning conflict and the hope for peace between the two sides. There’s even a nice scene at the beginning of the movie of an orc and a human circling each other before battle while a voice over tells the audience that orcs and humans didn’t always know about each other, let alone being in conflict with each other. It’s clear from the way this movie is bookended, with this scene at the front, and the scene of the baby that will grow up to be Thrall being found in his basket by the humans,* that the movie aspires to tell a grander tale than just the one contained in this first movie.
Unfortunately, the writing of the movie is so poor that it distracts from those lofty ambitions. With the exception of a few scenes (mostly those involving the orcs) the dialogue is fairly stilted. It wasn’t all exposition dumps like some have said and feared, but there are precious few lines dedicated to merely developing characters outside of their relationship to the worldbuilding, and none of it feels particularly inspired. Every time soemthing cool or exceptional is happening on screen, it is usually muted by the poor dialogue. And on a broader scope, the pacing of the movie also leaves something to be desired. While many scenes are interesting in their own right, the movie on the whole never gels into a whole. Scenes come and go and they seldom help each other in the way that they feel like they should.
Part of this, sadly, has to be laid at the feet of the actors. While most of the orcs are great and are even doing gangbusters work with the motion capture, the humans all feel wooden. Lothar, played by Travis Fimmel, is the most eggregious. There are scenes showing us that he cares about his son, and that he cares about Azeroth, and that he sort of develops feelings for Garona, the half orc played by Paula Patton. But he never seems to emote in the way the script seems to dictate that he should. King Llane and the other humans are similarly all being performed with a kind of, I guess I would describe it as gravity, that doesn’t feel right for Warcraft, especially when compared with the emotive and complex orcs. People have said that the humans in the film feel less real than the CGI orcs, and they’re not wrong. The big exception to this rule is Medivh, played by Ben Foster, in a really odd performance that feels more right for an oddball wizard who has locked himself in a tower for so long.
There are a number of things that the movie does so right that I want to ignore these obvious casting and writing failings, despite how they distract me from the solid work being done in other aspects of the movie. I’ve already mentioned the bookending of the film with the larger scope of the story, and how the tale they want to tell has great thematic underpinnings that are worthy of being explored in this kind of genre. We should also take note of just how amazing the movie looks. The production design is great, really capturing the feel of the games fantasy world. And they don’t shy away from how weird that fantasy world can be, especially when you look at how the magic is represented. There’s a real temptation to simplify the magic, make it auras and magical bolts and that nonsense. But the runes and complexity of the magic on display make it simply arcane, both in a sense of obscurity and in the sense that this is the type of magic that it is. And I would be remiss to not mention just how amazing the orcs look. I’ve already mentioned how they look incredibly real, but that’s while also being literal cartoon characters. Oversized hands, tusks, and facial structures ripped right out of World of Warcraft are all on display and the motion capture and animation combined are just sublime. There is a sense of craft to the film that I just wish wasn’t hampered so much by the writing.
Again, I want to say that I am a fan of Warcraft and that the movie was fine. But it was hampered by big issues with writing and casting that simply can’t be ignored. There is a grand vision to Warcraft, and a story that I happily want to see told. But it can be told better than this.
And I think there also needs to be something said for the pure density of the movie. Warcraft is trying to get a LOT across. There’s a reason it’s technically called “Warcraft: The Beginning”. This is all set up so that people unlike me who don’t know the names “Arthas”, “Uther the Lightbringer”, or “Orgrim Doomhammer” can become acquainted with the world of Azeroth. For people who are already fans or who have at least already played some WoW, there’s a lot of stuff that we can breeze over or recognize, like Thrall in the basket. For people who are unfamiliar with all of this, I can only imagine what many of the infodumps in the movie feel like, and if they are more or less egregious than they are to someone who already knows what the Kirin Tor are.
I think the disparity between responses from professional reviewers and the general public (to speak nothing of the box office success from China) is telling. Is Warcraft filmmaking at its finest, or even at its higher tiers? No, not even close. But is it serviceable while looking great and filling a frankly underrepresented genre in big box office market? It certainly is. And does it have high ambitions that can and hopefully will be fulfilled by sequels? It does. While the movie didn’t make me want to pick World of Warcraft back up any more than I already did, I think the games actually have pretty good stories to tell and I think they deserve the blockbuster movie treatment. I hope they give Duncan Jones another swing at it and that they tell the story of Thrall right.
*It’s hard to overstate how obvious a metaphor for Moses this is. And yet at the same time, I think it totally works, at least it does if they follow up well on it in the subsequent films. Thrall is Orc Moses but at the same time, he becomes a slave, not a prince of Egypt. It’s a weird part of the Warcraft lore but it’s also fascinating and I hope they get to play with it.