I can understand why critics hated the Warcraft movie. There are plot points that are never left explained, character motivations behind dramatic twists which are never brought to light, and the movie itself ends not in completion, but in what feels like the middle of a rising crescendo. It was a movie that relied on CGI as a crutch, and a few actors gave less than stellar performances.
And yet, I can’t stop smiling when I think about the movie I saw on Saturday.
Warcraft to me, was a movie that made me happy. It made me smile. Yes, there were flaws – big ones – but somehow, despite all that, I truly enjoyed myself watching this movie. Hell, I more than just enjoyed myself: I wanted to find my friends, to rant and rave about what Duncan Jones had tried to make out of a 20+ year dynasty. Why? How can a movie have such glaring problems, but yet also inspire such appreciation?
The CGI Elephant In The Room
Let’s get this out of the way, shall we?
Your enjoyment of this movie is going to hinge on whether or not you can deal with CGI. I’m not even going to get into the argument of whether it was ‘good’ CGI, or ‘bad’ CGI, because that is a rabbit hole that you can fall down for months. There are some people that, regardless of quality of CGI, will harp on it as a move away from good filmmaking, that it’s distracting from the normal cinematography, and is in general ‘not good enough’. You visit enough comment sections and read enough critic articles, and they’ll take movies which are considered the pinnacle of this science such as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and destroy them because they didn’t believe the monkeys movements.
All enjoyment of fantasy and of media requires something of a suspension of disbelief. If you go to a play, you understand that the actors might end up in a monologue to the audience that might never happen in real life. If you play Halo, or almost every FPS out there, you suddenly don’t care that reloading doesn’t make you lose the ammo of an entire clip. You can play a realistic survival game, but do you care that there’s not a feature to go to the bathroom?
Duncan Jones, as the director, chooses very wisely to have one of the first opening shots be Durotan and his wife laying in their hut, idling. Doing nothing. You have a moment to take it all in: the jutting tusks, the built up facial features. The orc smacks his lips, and turns to comfort the bearer of his child. Small, tiny things, meant to ground you as the viewer into this world of Azeroth, and its aesthetic. Much like the game World of Warcraft, you are drawn into a very particular artistic style that looks fluid and perfect when in its own enclosed space, but jarring when taken out of context.
The scenes that are of just orcs are close to perfect. I take them in as completely believable. Gul’Dan especially is a visual treat, and it is absolutely amazing to realize how long the movie lets you just stare at their creations in long sweeps, taking in dozens of tiny details in their faces and their hair. Most of the spells were well executed, and felt believable inside the movie; the teleport spells especially left me and my friends grinning with how well they came across. Conversely, some scenes did come across as jarring, namely when the humans clashed directly against a mostly Orc/CGI backdrop. This is because it lets you focus specifically on the differences between the races, and the uncanny valley gets a bit larger.
When the trailers came out, the movie was mocked on forums for being filled with CGI. Yet, looking at the technical skill and execution of all of the effects, many movie buffs are stating that Warcraft might be the new standard that other CGI movies are judged by.
I enjoyed how well this movie brought the orcs to life. I was able to suspend my disbelief to jump into Azeroth and see what came next. If you know upfront that you can’t stand heavy CGI, or that you can’t suspend your disbelief moving into a fantasy world, then this movie is not for you.
We Begin, Without Explanation
With that out of the way, let’s talk about how much Warcraft jumps around from scene to scene. Warcraft tells a story in the middle, and it tells this story unapologetically. It doesn’t coddle the viewer with trying to explain what a Griffon or a Draenai is. As the orcs burn and pillage after arriving in human lands, the movie shows off the backdrops of locations in Azeroth that are immediately recognizable for people that have played World of Warcraft, but they are only shown in passing, without explanation. You see this during one of the opening scenes, where Anduin Lothar starts in Ironforge, a location not seen again for the entire movie. It might seem superfluous, even confusing.
Yet, it’s an absolutely gorgeous scene. The pouring of molten metal, the ring of hammers: it feels like the capital city of the dwarves which I have read about and played inside of in video games. There are shots that have identical backgrounds to those found in World of Warcraft, and for anyone that’s played that game, it immediately instills both a sense of place and of nostalgia.
The scenes set in Goldshire were made to often match World of Warcraft, shot for shot. It's no secret this movie was made to make long-time fans happy.
Then, as suddenly as it appeared, Ironforge is gone. Dwarves was a race get only minute of screen time during the movie, and also vanish. They don’t seem to add to the immediate plot or premise of the cinematic world being put before you. Instead, scenes like this try expand the world, to give a sense that there’s more happening off screen. There are pros and cons to this: many are silent nods towards long time fans of the game series, but they don’t immediately add to a linear progression of story. That’s something modern movie audiences aren’t entirely used to. This is a movie with decades of content behind it, and for better or worse, it doesn’t stop to explain much.
There’s History Here
The original Warcraft game looked absolutely nothing like the powerhouse that World of Warcraft became. It was a Real Time Strategy game back in 1994, where plot was relegated to manuals, or to scrolling text between missions if you were lucky. The images we had of this world were pixelated, or copies of sketches put into the small guides that came with the CD.
Looking at Warcraft as a franchise is to see the evolution and mutation of a genre and subculture over the course of twenty years. It started as something small, obscure, and with one dedicated set of fans. It grew into something beloved, and was nurtured into more games, into expanding story arcs, with better technology and more fans to go with it. That base idea, the concept of orcs and humans fighting, has been redone and remade and refined over and over to match a new era of storytelling and gameplay and fandom.
Just remember that all of this started in 1994.
Warcraft as a movie is trying to be too many things at once. It wants to be the grandfather, the original concept that helped to launch one of the biggest franchises in gaming. It also wants to be a tie-in, a movie that people born after the original games launched can still identify. It also wants to be an envoy, a new medium to draw people from outside the world of gaming in. “Look,” it says. “Look at me: this is not something shallow and superficial. There is something here, a reason why millions of people have been sucked into this fantasy world, just like Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones.”
What To Ke ep, What to Change
For this next bit, we need to talk about the story arcs in Azeroth: there’s some spoilers ahead to do it right. You’ve been warned!
To deal with all the different audiences Warcraft is trying to appeal to, there are compromises. Perhaps too many compromises. Some work well, helping the movie achieve some great moments, putting in easter eggs for some game fans. The use of a polymorph spell got laughter to fill my entire theatre, doubled by how the writers managed to get Khadgar to explain the spell’s duration…something anyone that’s played World of Warcraft would recognize.
Some compromises seem a little jarring, but can be managed. A good example is the character of Lothar: Duncan Jones had to make a noble, grizzled, honorable paladin-esque hero feel relatable to a 2016 audience. This is a character that has been dead since 1996, just for comparison, and a character that had lived their full life before cut-scenes existed in games. So, giving the role to an actor known for having a bit of smarm threw a lore-fanatic like myself off, but it’s an understandable compromise.
Another understandable example is how Durotan and ****** die. Durotan dies tragically both in the lore and in the movie, but originally, both are slaughtered off camera, unsuccessfully trying to get away from a demon-infused horde. In order to streamline and focus the story in the movie, the Frostwolf chieftain has a chance to fight Gul’Dan in ritual combat. He still dies, but here his death has more of a tragic punch, and is also tied to the thought that some orcs might remember the old ways, setting the stage for future lore (and perhaps movies).
Some of these changes make sense, even if they ruffle the feathers of some purists. They normalize plot points, but they also don’t manage to transform the story into a neat, self-contained box, leaving some viewers (like traditional critics) feeling a bit unsteady, leaving no one happy.
Lothar is a hero that I thought was buried years ago in the lore. While he's changed a lot for the movie, I'm still happy to see him getting his time in the sun
The movie’s ending highlights this problem: the end of Warcraft 1 has the humans lose, completely and utterly. Stormwind is destroyed, and Lothar travels north with the refugees to the human kingdom of Lordaeron. It is there that the Alliance is born, and that the other races band together to fight in Warcraft II. The movie, naturally, didn’t want to end a movie with the destruction and pillaging of a city, so it cuts that part out, ending with the races banding together at their king’s funeral. The movie ends with cheers of ‘for the alliance!’, but before the true war begins. No one won with this ending. At the same time, there wasn’t really a way to make this ending work, thanks to the original source material. Well, unless you wanted to add another 2-3 hours to cover Warcraft II’s plot in the same movie.
The Medivh Problem
Nothing highlights the issues with the Warcraft movie more than Medivh. A character known as the Guardian, Medivh is the pivotal figure that causes many of the problems in Azeroth, but also helps save the world as well. There is a book written just about how conflicted the character is internally, and dozens of its pages are dedicated to showing how otherworldly and weird his home of Karazhan can be.
The movie had to take a character who spans hundreds of pages and multiple games – and who can also cast world altering magic - and distill him into a two hour movie. What happened in the process felt a bit like a train wreck; Ben Foster plays Medivh as an insecure, constantly confused looking wizard. Many of the lines feeling stilted, as if the actor isn’t sure which emotion they should use. I can’t exactly blame him for having trouble encapsulating the enigmatic wizard, the depiction left me feeling uninspired.
In the same breath, Medivh is villain and hero, possessed by a dark force (labelled as “The Fel” instead of as a specific influence… an attempt to condense the story). His conflict isn’t shown well, simply because the chief conflict of the movie was supposed to be the orcs and humans starting to war with each other. Duncan Jones doesn’t have a chance to give us a movie explaining such a character in detail, and so we are left with a confusing figure that might be the weakest part of the film. At the same time, I’m not sure how you can tell the story of Warcraft without Medivh. Perhaps some stronger acting (both for Medivh, and some of the human leads such as the one-tone King Wrynn I) might have helped, but I’m not sure the problem could be fixed entirely.
Warcraft Is An Ambitious And Beautiful Mess
The world is Azeroth is mostly known for the sprawling World of Warcraft, so going back to the original nugget of exposition and style feels like digging up the tomb of your favorite grandfather: something that feels familiar, yet unrecognizable. You want to pay homage to what has come before, but somehow you don’t know exactly what to say. How do you summarize someone’s life effectively without losing something?
I am someone that has enjoyed the ideas behind Warcraft for years. Even long after I put down my subscription to the MMO, I have appreciated that which Blizzard has made, and always found a certain pleasure in having been there from the start. For someone like me, seeing this movie was a sort of catharsis: where once I could only read the plot with scrolling text on a tiny screen, I now got to see it lived out in a way I honestly thought never would be possible only a few years ago. It took a sliver of my childhood and gave it a larger-than-life flash on the big screen.
Duncan Jones has said he would love to do sequels to this movie. The fanboy in me would kill to see the story of Arthas brought to the big screen
Compare that to my wife, who I saw it with. She had never played those original RTS games, and had only dabbled in the MMO for a month. She had no context, no deep love or appreciation for the lore being spelled out on screen. She came away from the movie with a shrug and a smile. It was a fun movie, but movie that felt unfinished, with no real resolution, and with a few too many things left unexplained for her liking.
The real movie did not fail in the same way that many critics said it did. It did not suffer ‘the video game movie curse’: those sorts of movies are where every small detail is rehashed, and it didn’t feel like a phoned in attempt to grab money. Warcraft felt like a love letter about the game series, but it wasn’t sure who to address the letter to. Was this movie made for a casual audience? I don’t believe so, and the director even said this was a project made for people that already liked the series.
Was it a good movie? Perhaps not by normal standards, but it wasn't made for a normal audience. Warcraft was made with a massive checklist of goals, and it accomplished many of them, while having to compromise on others. For me, for a lore-hound that loves world building and fantasy universes, it was spectacular and worth it, despite the internal problems with pacing and some acting. If you want an adventure romp, this movie is for you. If you want to get a hint as to why Blizzard Entertainment has been able to capture the imagination of millions of people around the world, give it a try. This movie wasn't made for critics, it was made for fans, and I think I'm not the only one out there who is happy with the work Duncan Jones has done.