Warcraft spends so much time trying to earn gamer cred that it fails to tell a compelling story.
You shouldn’t need to read a Wiki to enjoy a movie.
And yet, Warcraft, the film adaptation of Blizzard Entertainment’s long-running strategy series-turned-uber popular MMO, buries so many of its simplest moments under a mountain of meaningless in-universe goofiness. The movie drops you into an unfamiliar world and couldn’t care less whether you get lost. And so even a relatively simple story — green monster guys fight humans, a plot line that audiences easily followed through no fewer than six of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies — becomes damn near impenetrable in Warcraft.
Usually, when a video game gets adapted into movie, the trouble comes when writers water down the essential properties that made people like the game in the first place: its aesthetic, its characters, its setting, etc. Warcraft has the exact opposite problem: It’s so mired in recreating the games that it forgets how to tell a compelling story. It doesn’t care that some people in the audience might not have dedicated a decade to hanging out in digital locales like Orgrimmar or Stormwind, and it never manages to make anyone in the audience, Warcraft fan or not, care about what’s happening on screen.
Desperately serving the gamer audience
Even in the first 20 minutes, Warcraft bounces around all over the place. It’s about orcs, who like to conquer other people and are very big on war, opening a portal that lets them go to another world, in order to conquer it. That world has humans, and the orcs fight them. That’s pretty much it, and yet Warcraft struggles constantly to develop meaningful stakes, despite it being absolutely overflowing with characters.
When you’re finally able to turn your brain off, and just watch crazy action sequences, you start to enjoy the film.
There’s Durotan (Toby Kibbell), the head of an orc clan who’s somewhat concerned the orc leader, a very evil-looking guy called Gul’dan (Daniel Wu), is using an especially evil kind of magic called Fel and that it’s bad for his orc people. There’s Lothar (Travis Fimmel), who runs of the military for human King Llane (Dominic Cooper) and is trying to figure out what the deal is with these orcs. There’s Medivh (Ben Foster), the “Guardian,” an especially magical human whose place in this world — sitting atop a tower, basically doing nothing, apparently — is never explained or even discussed. And there’s Garona (Paula Patton), who’s the most important person to the movie’s story in that she’s half-orc. Garona is a character carrying a huge amount of emotional baggage and story weight, at least on paper, but in the film, she mostly hisses threats and then is confused when the humans are nice to her.
And there are other people randomly sprinkled in, like disgraced young wizard Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), whose function early in the movie is to insist on waiting to find Medivh before giving crucial explanations; Durotan’s second-in-command Orgrim (Rob Kazinsky); Durotan’s pregnant wife Draka (Anna Galvin); and a very angry Clancy Brown as the orc leader Blackhand.
Even for someone relatively well-versed in Warcraft lore, it all becomes a deluge of details, mostly with no development at all.
The movie’s so busy hitting all these video game lore points — Guardian, Fel, orcs, demons (apparently?), naming specific cities and certain clans and throwing in notable creatures and people and objects — that it doesn’t bother with the things that matter to a story, like characterization, or more critically, motivation.
Why do the orcs want to conquer everybody they come across, to the point of traveling to other planets to do so? What’s orc society like in the first place? And this Guardian guy: What does he guard, how did he get there, why is he necessary, and why does he do what he does? What’s the deal with the dwarves and elves who show up just long enough to say they won’t help fight the orcs? What’s the human world like, and what does it stand to lose if the orcs win? Why is Durotan worried about the evil-ish direction of orc society — something that’s obviously been going on for a while — when nobody else is?
So much time was spent making the orcs look believable that nobody remembered to make them interesting to watch.
There are answers for all these questions, but if you’re not a fan of Warcraft already, it’s painfully difficult to pull these details out of the movie. Worse, like a really bad episode of technobabble in Star Trek, the movie digs itself deeper by rattling off names like Karazhan, Stormwind, and Ironforge.
It’s ultimately Warcraft’s gamer cred that is its major downfall. Even if you are a fan, it never establishes stakes to make you care about the fates of these people. It’s more interested in earning its gamer cred than being a compelling movie.
Computer-aided animation magic makes the likes of Kibbell, Wu, Galvin and Brown look cool as orcs, but then the movie doesn’t really bother to develop their characters. Lothar and Llane are wearing armor that’s true to the game’s aesthetic, but the film doesn’t spend any time making you care about whether they get walloped by giant orc axes.
The action isn’t half bad
When Warcraft is able to flex its special effects muscles, it fares better. The movie is at its best when you’re watching giant wolves tear apart puny human soldiers, or an agile Lothar dodging beneath the hulking arms of orc enemies. When you’re finally able to turn your brain off, stop trying to figure out what’s going on, and just watch crazy action sequences, you can start to enjoy the film.
Those action scenes are often pretty impressive, drawing on all the flash and intensity that makes games viscerally exciting. Warcraft manages to make those orc-versus-human moments pop, with weapons crashing together with a weight that sells the whole idea of giant monsters fighting puny soldiers to the death. But then the action slows and it becomes obvious again that there’s no substance here. So much time was spent making the orcs look believable that nobody remembered to make them interesting to watch.
This isn’t a video game
Warcraft feels like a Warcraft game, mostly constructed of cutscenes that give flashes of story before the next big action scene. In a video game, though, players excuse or ignore a bad story because their focus is on gameplay. A fun level can fix a confusing cutscene fade into the background with good gameplay. Warcraft is all confusing cutscenes, without any levels to distract you.
Most egregious is the movie’s “ending,” to the extent it can be considered one. Warcraft’s war between orcs and humans never ends because, well, Blizzard needs to make more games, but the movie doesn’t even wrap itself up nicely. Nothing any of the main characters does really makes a useful difference, and the film concludes with such wide-open and ridiculous cliffhanger that every theater might as well just start offering tickets for a sequel.
It’s tough to follow what’s going on in Warcraft, but ultimately none of it really mattered anyway.
Even ahead of its release, gamers have taken to the internet to argue about the state of Warcraft and claim that those who find it incredibly lacking just don’t “get” the games or their lore. The failings with the film, however, aren’t in its adaptation of concepts, characters, or story ideas from the games — it’s in telling a compelling story as a film. Warcraft is a failure of a movie because it’s a badly told story. You shouldn’t need to have dedicated years of your life to a video game to follow an adaptation.
Even those who know their murlocs from naga and high elves from night elves are going to get bored. There’s a vast, expansive and fleshed-out world behind Warcraft, and almost none of it actually makes it into the film. What does make it into the film are big-budget action sequences surrounded by a checklist of World of Warcraft features. But no matter how many references to WoW the movie includes, it doesn’t make it interesting to watch.