I watched this movie with a lot of preconceptions going into it, because if there’s any company that could lay a claim to my soul it would be Blizzard Entertainment. This comes from a number of factors. Firstly there’s Sairose, the night-elf warrior, and Zizzou, the gnome monk, both level 100 and somewhat raid specced in World of Warcraft. There’s Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls, where I have all six classes at max level, in both hardcore and non hardcore. There’s the recently released Overwatch, which I have previously discussed my love for on this blog. And finally there’s Hearthstone – my one true addiction. Assuming an optimistic win rate of 50%, I have played over 5000 games of hearthstone since it’s release.
Essentially I’m a Blizzard fan boy of the highest order.
But not all my preconceptions were positive. Anyone who has spent any significant time within World of Warcraft knows just how much of a mess it has been lore-wise for many years now. That’s not to say there’s not brilliant stories within this world – War of the Ancients, or Arthas for example – but the overall narrative is messy. The game relies too much on the concepts of characters either escaping, or dying and being resurrected later. The last two expansions have ended with the primary villain escaping via various deus ex machinas to just turn up in the next expansion. The most callous of these is Garrosh in Mists of Pandaria. Multiple expansions have set up Garrosh, the leader of the Horde (one of the games factions), as being in over his head but yet fiercely determined to protect his people through violence and power. This eventually leads to him becoming a genocidal figure, literally nuking human cities and thus the player is tasked with raiding the Orcish capital to bring him down. But his story doesn’t end there, he escapes back in time (which is a separate issue, the game can’t write interesting characters so is forced to resurrect old popular ones time and time again) thus setting up the next expansion. When the player finally catches up to him, just as the killing blow is struck
Green Jesus Thrall steps in, challenges Garrosh to a duel, cheats, and kills him. The resolution that the player had been working towards for multiple years is stripped from them at the last possible second. World of Warcraft can tell interesting stories, but it often fails to satisfy a longer narrative arc.
In many ways, this is a problem shared by the film adaptation. Warcraft is very heavily constrained by the huge amounts of exposition it requires. I feel like if I wasn’t very familiar with the games and the extended canon I would have spent the first third of the film entirely lost. The script just throws names and concepts at you to see what sticks: what’s the Guardian? What’s that blue thing Gul’Dan kills? Fel magic? As someone knowledgeable in the lore, the past two seem the most incongruous to me. The orcish horde slaughtered the Draenei, in game the road leading to the portal is made from their bones – but in the film there’s a single Draenei slave and the massacre is barely mentioned. Also the “fel” magic seems out of place within the filmic world. It just seemed to appear from nowhere, yet everyone on Azeroth was aware of it? If the script just took 2 minutes to explain it other questions would be explained a little better: Gul’Dan makes a Faustian pact with what is essentially the devil, the orcs that take it gain strength and a blood lust but their skin turns green, the frostwolves are red because they refused the gift. This depth is missing from the narrative, instead the evil force, as it were, is presented as “scary, evil, green magic”.
Lionsgate and Activision Blizzard clearly intend this film to start a franchise, and therefore the film does the awful trope of failing to resolve it’s narrative by focusing on sequel-bait instead (that rant I did at the start of this about WoW expacs makes a lot of sense now huh?). In many ways the closest comparison I can think for this film is The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, in that it both films recognise that no narrative resolution can be achieved by the end of its running time, so they close with a flashy, spectacular fight scene. The Two Towers gives audiences Helms Deep, considered by many to be one of the single greatest war scenes within cinematic history. Warcaft gives us King Llane (Dominic Cooper) rescuing his captured people and assaulting the gateway between the human and orc world. Unfortunately this scene is not a big enough spectacle for the film to adequately close with. Dominic Cooper is awful as the supposed passionate, heroic King; his performance lacks all depth and emotion, and you never really believe he’s lead an army to such an emphatic victory. Even in the emotional resolution between Garona (Llane’s half-orc advisor) and Llane is Coopers performance is stilted. As a result the fight scenes just sort of happen. And thus in the end (huge spoilers) Gul’dan escapes with his horde and Garona, and
Green Jesus, Thrall, Go’el is found by a human in the films closing scene. The implication therefore that he will be back in the sequel to avenge his father.
Yet despite my many negative preconceptions of Warcraft, and the numerous flaws that the film itself has, I actually found myself enjoying it. For everything that the film does wrong, it does just enough right to actually be fun. Yes Dominic Cooper is absolutely piss-poor but there are numerous other good performances. Travis Fimmel shines as Lothar, the other “main” human character, and Robert Kazinsky and Toby Kebbell steal the show as Doomhammer and Durotan respectively. The motion capture performances of these two orcs is simply incredible; they move with real heft, and in many places these two characters seem truer to life than some of the humans within the film. Also I think the design and voice performance of Gul’Dan was fantastic. I never really saw the draw of Gul’Dan as a villain before this film (which is helpful, as an “alternative universe” Gul’Dan has been the villain of the game for some time now) but now I’m finally seeing him as something terrifying; Warcraft doesn’t literally tell the audience that it’s main villain is powerful, it repeatedly shows it until his strength becomes respected.
The WoW player in me loved seeing familiar locations translated into this adaptation. I know that perhaps doesn’t sound like a plus to those who has never played the game, but those who have will know just how personal the journey is. I have a lot of time invested in my main character, and therefore the places my adventures took me. Kharazan has a wonderful design and a brilliant set, reminiscent of Harry Potter in places. This magical tower is a raid from the games second expansion, and I personally consider it the single greatest bit of content in the whole twelve year history of The World of Warcraft. The raid has you fight yourself through the dark magic and demons inhabiting the fallen tower. In Warcraft, you see the tower fall. I know often fan service in films like these is an awful thing, but Duncan Jones pitches it just right the majority of the time. If you didn’t know about the Kharazan raid you wouldn’t think twice about it – in other words, it raises no questions for the uninitiated – but for those who already have history with the location it is a added bonus to the film.
So yes whilst Warcraft has it’s problems, I couldn’t stop myself from enjoying it. There’s enough good in this film to justify a sequel. There’s so much story left to be told within this filmic world that I’m very glad to see that the opening to the franchise does enough to justify its existence. This film and WoW geek in me very much hopes that one day we’ll see a much more fully formed story explored on screen; this ropey, if enjoyable franchise film can be easily forgiven if it leads to a Illidan/Malfurion/Tyrande film or (more likely) the story of the Lich King.