Thought Bubble: Warcraft Gets Lost in its Own World

If nothing else, Warcraft is big. Duncan Jones’ feature-length adaptation of Blizzard’s iconic video game smacks audiences with sheer scope, pummeling you with a string of images designed to remind you that the land of Azeroth has big orcs, big hands, big buildings, and big spells. Warcraft is trying to inhabit the epic fantasy void left in the wake of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and it’s hoping that pumping everything with steroids will have the desired impact.

The effort does give Warcraft a certain grandeur, an endearing, shameless audacity that I have to admire even if I’m not sure who it’s for. The film comes across as a perplexing corporate vanity project, and I still can’t believe it exists because I can’t believe that anyone spent that much money on a film that makes so little effort to appeal to a non-Warcraft audience. For all its faults, Warcraft is unquestionably a video game adaptation, one that plays like a collection of cut scenes rather than a movie. As a gamer, it’s oddly thrilling to see such an expensive adaptation so deeply invested in its own lore.

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For those who appreciate a well-told story, the finished product can be a bit more frustrating. After destroying their own land with dark magic called the Fell, the Horde warlock Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) has constructed a portal to enter and conquer the lush world of Azeroth, where they will take more prisoners to reopen the portal and allow the rest of the Horde to come through. The Orc Chieftan Durotan (Toby Kebbell) opposes Gul’dan because his magic is polluting the land (and will therefore destroy the Horde), while the Azeroth Alliance – led by King Llane (Dominic Cooper), Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), and the magic-wielding Medivh (Ben Foster) – struggles to fight off the invaders arriving on their doorstep.

So far, it’s all relatively straightforward, and the movie benefits from its unapologetic use of its source material. After the first few trailers, I was worried that the faithful iconography wouldn’t translate to the screen. Those concerns proved to be unfounded. The orcs avoid the uncanny valley and most of the effects look spectacular. The CGI Horde and the live action Alliance are inhabiting the same film, while Azeroth feels like a tangible place. Blizzard has put Warcraft onscreen in the grandest fashion imaginable. If you’re a fan of the franchise, the movie is worth seeing for that novelty alone.

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It’s the film’s rigid adherence to other video game conventions that proves to be its undoing. Duncan Jones recognizes that audiences need to understand the characters’ motivations in order to relate to them, and Warcraft is packed with scenes intended to convey that humanity. Sadly, it’s a classic instance of show vs tell. The movie tells us that these characters have roiling inner lives but doesn’t bother to show us what it is they care about beyond the most archetypal details. Relationships are established factually rather than emotionally. Azeroth has kings and queens and sons and daughters because the laws of high fantasy mandate that a story has heroes, and not because Anduin and Llane’s trials are particularly compelling.

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It makes for a telling contrast with Lord of the Rings. Those films feel epic partly because they start small. We follow Frodo’s path all the way from the Shire to Mount Doom, each new location adding to a sturdy Middle Earth foundation. We have some sense of the distance between two places because we know how long it took to get there, and the journey also gives us time to get to know the characters at a more intimate level. Little details like food and fatigue convince us that these are real people with physical desires.

Warcraft has none of that more measured patience. It’s not content to flesh out its world over the course of an entire film, instead shooting everything onto the screen at once while dropping names that fans will recognize but that new viewers are unlikely to remember. When Anduin is first introduced, he jumps to three different cities in the span of five minutes, and characters regularly teleport or fly across great, unknown distances. Warcraft overloads your brain to convince you that everything is massive.

At times, that approach works. Warcraft has some of the best-looking magic I’ve ever seen in a fantasy film, an ethereal might on full display whenever Gul’dan drains souls or Medivh summons a tide of lightning from the sky. Warcraft captures the power dynamics of gaming, pulsing with raw energy that allows you to feel the crushing impact of every orcish hammer and the impenetrable glow of a magical shield. The action scenes are fun, and there’s a child-like part of me that genuinely loved seeing the unrestrained visuals of video game combat splashed so confidently across the screen.

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Unfortunately, it’s style over substance, and the lack of focus makes the film’s many structural flaws more readily apparent. For instance, what is supposed to be a preliminary Orcish war band seems to outnumber the entire human army, while the rest of the Alliance of Dwarves, Elves, and Mages seems puzzlingly disinterested in the events of the film. They keep saying they need their own armies to protect their own lands, but Azeroth has supposedly been at peace for generations. What, exactly, do they need to protect their lands from if not the giant army of Orcs from another dimension?

Warcraft is rife with such leaps of logic, and the flaws can be traced back to its original medium. Warcraft suffers from that strange brand of video game escalation in which the size and strength of the opposing force are determined mechanically rather than narratively, in which the level of the player must be proportional to the encounter. It’s storytelling via set pieces, and while that works in a video game in which the player gets to fill in the gaps with actual gameplay, it doesn’t work as well in a film without that interactive component. The narrative skips from one cut scene to the next and leaves a new plot hole every time it lands.

That lack of connective tissue will be to blame if Warcraft fails to resonate with general audiences. The orcs are far better developed than the humans, and the film takes great pains to make Durotan a three dimensional character. However, that bipartisan approach paradoxically ends up undercutting the story. The humans and the orcs should be able to reach a compromise, but long-running franchises demand perpetual conflict. The fight needs to keep going because resolution would signal the end of monthly paid subscriptions.

In the case of Warcraft – both the video game and the film – that means that there’s always some big bad, some unseen mastermind manipulating events from afar. The war becomes artificial, a manufactured commercial product rather than a narrative compulsion, and while that’s fine if you’re just trying to give players an excuse to use cool powers, it’s less effective if you want to tell a concise story informed by character rather than circumstance.

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Despite the numerous flaws, Warcraft’s preposterous swagger is often entertaining and the lore of Azeroth is incredibly deep even when it is bluntly delivered. I hope the movie does well enough to justify the sequel, if only because I’m curious to see what it would look like. I (mostly) enjoyed Warcraft because I’m the target audience for big, epic fantasy adventures based on video games.

But evil for the sake of evil is usually a boring explanation, and it’s disappointing to see the commercial cogs in motion. Though Warcraft is based on the original real-time strategy game, World of Warcraft is the more famous iteration and the one driving the current manifestation of the franchise. As a persistent online world in which players can fight for both the Alliance and the Horde, World of Warcraft needs to maintain a constant state of war without making either side explicitly villainous. The movie achieves that, but it forces the issue. Warcraft is the narrative equivalent of CEOs slamming action figures into one another without ever pausing to consider why they should be fighting.

 

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