There was a time when I spent the majority of my days playing World of Warcraft. While it’s been several years since I last logged on, I have continued following the game’s developments both in-world and out (I may one of the few with high hopes for Legion), pondering a time when my schedule will open up enough for me to return to explore the vast, varied world of Azeroth once more. Since then I have tried other MMOs but none of them have quite the refinement, the depth of lore, or the quirky mix of humor and darkness which has made WoW the phenomenon it is (declining numbers or not, it’s still the most subscribed-to game in the world). It’s surprising then that all of the problems in a film based on this nuanced, richly developed world would stem from a lack of character.
By lack of character I don’t mean that the story has few characters. Quite the opposite, there are several characters present in the story, the introductions to which can make the opening hour feel a bit disjointed as the narrative moves between the two sides of humans and orcs with little explanation of who or what is important. Even after we learn who these characters are, at least in relation to each other and where they stand in the conflict, very little is done to develop them beyond their few defining traits. More disappointing is that the central relationships, particularly that of Lothar (Travis Fimmel) and Garona (Paula Patton) which has been such a focus of the extended game lore, comes off as underdeveloped and superficial on-screen, robbing the twists and turns of their story of the emotional heights which we should feel. But I digress… a trait which often came through during my time in WoW.
The greater lack of character is actually felt in the world itself. Warcraft as a franchise not only stood out from other Tolkien-esque fantasy games for refined gameplay and cartoony appearance (which wouldn’t work in a big screen adaptation) but also for its irreverent humor and off-the-wall references. There are hundreds of self-serious fantasy worlds out there, but not many where human peasants spout angry Monty Python lines after being clicked too often or resurrected corpses head bang in celebration of a successful kill. Humor has been as much a standard of life in Azeroth as mining and building barracks. This isn’t to say that Warcraft would be better if it crammed in anymore cheap Easter eggs, or if it were given a Cornetto Trilogy-like post-modern comedy treatment, but that perhaps borrowing from the Marvel playbook of mixing serious themes with a light heart would help in at least giving the Warcraft movie some sort of identity. Or perhaps the film would benefit more from a greater level of Game of Thrones like darkness. Either one of these and several other would be valid and helpful changes if only to would pull Warcraft away from the dregs of generic fantasy where it now resides. The need to smooth out the franchise in order to appeal to more than just the (fading) subscriber base is understandable, but the fact is that right now much of Warcraft is so middle of the unpaved forest road that it doesn’t feel like anything special. It’s Warcraft without the very elements which have defined Warcraft.
It’s notable as well that the most enjoyable aspects of Warcraft are those which stem from or elaborate upon something taken from the game. Moments such as the polymorph scene hint at the game’s quirky humor and provide a much needed puncture of the generic tropes unfolding on screen. Other small touches stand out as bits of style among what is mostly a cut-and-dried narrative: a transition which mimics the movement of the original RTS games, the great visuals of Medivh’s magic and the Kirin Tor’s sanctum, a switch in perspective allowing the audience to hear how the characters’ languages differ, and other such flights of style that break from the common. During these little moments, Warcraft (and director Duncan Jones whose Moon and Source Code are two of the highlights of 21st Century science fiction cinema) hints at what could and should have been if given the chance to be as daring as its source material.
Easily the most standout element of Warcraft is its effects, which are very often gorgeous. Durotan and Draka, particularly in the opening sequence, are so meticulously detailed that you can’t believe they aren’t living beings. There are several instances where it’s impossible to tell what is real from what is CGI. Even during times when the effects are considerably more obvious, especially during quick movement or when humans interact with orcs, the plasticy, overly detailed nature of computer graphics becomes clearer, but for the most part, Warcraft is a beautifully crafted work of modern technology and represents yet another step forward in the development of special effects. As a lapsed player, it’s indeed thrilling to see Stormwind (and its guards’ armor), Dalaran, Elwynn Forest, the Dark Portal, griffons, Karazhan, and other such game elements spring to life on screen. Can’t say I wasn’t a bit giddy during the film’s establishment shot of Ironforge, digging my mental bestiary as Medivh constructed his golem is Karazhan, or thrilled from the appearance of Deadwind Pass. The next step, for both Warcraft and effects movies in general, must be in making those environment and effects feel more tangible rather than flat and distant. As is, Warcraft like other effects-heavy movies before it, suffers from the same lack of tension and fluidity. After a while, it’s hard not to notice that Garona isn’t as sharply filmed as her fellow orcs, and thus feels distant from them even as they’re supposed to be interacting. There are times when Warcraft‘s effect actually suffer from being too beautiful, a problem which I’m sure many lesser made films would wish to have.
If the film and filmmakers deserve credit for anything, it’s ambition. This isn’t some quick cash-in on an aging franchise, nor is it a cheap love letter to long-time fans. It’s clear that the Warcraft movie is a full-throttle attempt at launching this story into a new medium. Lofty goals, however, don’t alleviate some of Warcraft‘s issues with editing and pacing. Scenes seem to cut suddenly and without needed punctuation, simultaneous events don’t line up chronologically, and much of the middle of the film drags heavily before what is a surprisingly well done ending. By the time the credits roll it’s clear that Warcraft (subtitled in some countries as The Beginning) is about moving its pieces into the correct positions. The various movements are clunky and awkward but once in place, the end game is much more natural and elegant than everything which came before it. In this sense, Warcraft once again deviates greatly from its source material. Where WoW is about enjoying the journey and never truly ends, Warcraft seems to brush aside much of the journey to make way for the end.
Perhaps, if given the chance, future Warcraft films can refine the franchise the way expansions have for the game, except that the game – “vanilla” WoW – was already best in genre even before its expansions. The same cannot be said of the film. It too is vanilla. And not in the nostalgic way that some of its core audience pine for.