Warcraft: The Movie
For many of us, Azeroth is a home away from home. From the first breaths many of us took in 1994 with Warcraft: Orcs and Humans, to the expansive universe that is the ongoing World of Warcraft, for the last twenty-two years Blizzard Entertainment has been a staple of the Real Time Strategy and Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game genres. In many ways this company, and the worlds they created, were among the most decisive and influential forces that shaped the development of PC gaming as we know it.
This weekend we have been given the opportunity to experience the worlds of Draenor and Azeroth in a new way, one that many of us have hoped to see for much of our lives. With every installation of the Warcraft franchise one of the more enjoyable moments of the game is when the coveted Cinematic Cut-Scenes are revealed. These masterpieces have taken our breaths away and stunned audiences for decades, and the quality has only improved with each instillation. With Warcaft The Movie we have the opportunity to at long last see our favorite realms and characters portrayed on the big screen, in all of the glory we have come to expect from Blizzard.
Before we get into the heart of this review I wish to do away with any pretenses. I am a huge fan of Blizzard Entertainment and Warcraft particularly. I first played Warcraft: Orcs & Humans when I was eight years old on my father’s Windows 95 PC. My cousins and I played Tides of Darkness until the discs would no longer run, and from college forward I’ve put over 3,000 Hours into my World of Warcraft Characters, over half of that on my Main Character. I am absolutely biased toward this film and this franchise, and watched this movie as a fan first.
(My Level 100 Blood Elf Paladin Victoreia in Draenor at the Frostwall Garrison)
That being said, this is not a perfect movie and there are some problems that need to be addressed. Before we delve into the meat of this film I want to make two disclaimers absolutely clear. First, while I will do my best not to spoil this movie as a whole, there will be references to the content and events that take place, so read at your own discretion. Secondly I do not wish to hide my bias, I love what Blizzard does and I love the Warcraft Franchise. With that being said, let’s have a look at what this Movie has to offer.
By this point anyone familiar with what Blizzard has accomplished in the Warcraft Cinematic pieces should know what to expect from the Movie. The previews do not do this movie justice. Everything in this film is absolute a treat to behold. Every hair, every speck of dirt, there is no detail that is left without polish. Even down to the etching of scratches on bone there is extra detail, and the subtle effects the lighting brings to different grades of metal only enhances the immersion. Warcraft is able to give even major CGI films like Avatar a run for their money.
Even without accounting for this attention to detail the distinct style and flavor of Warcraft is very evident in this film. The Orcs are big and hulking, you can feel their brutality. The weapons are exaggerated and even flamboyant, exactly what fans have come to expect. All of the proportions, though at times somewhat distracting, are distinctly Warcraftian and immediately identifiable with the style of the games. It is admittedly true that this can be distracting from the presentation, as the disproportion and boldness of some items or structures is admittedly over the top. Dalaran, for all of its splendor, is very fantastical and overdone. On the one hand this gives the movie a feel that will make any gamer already familiar with the world very at home, while on the other the uninitiated will likely find themselves drawn out of the experience for it.
That being said, the magic as it is portrayed in Warcraft is absolutely breathtaking. The spells are visually stunning and unique to the ones casting them. There is special attention given to the gestures and nuances for each piece of magic, and when the lights of the spellcraft take center stage there is no more pleasing sight in the whole movie. The scenes with Gul’dan’s Fel Magic are as terrifying as you’d expect, and Khadgar’s Kirin Tor magic flashes with elegance, a stark contrast between the natures of these magics themselves. Perhaps the only thing one could say negatively about the magic is that the contrasting colors is perhaps too obvious and heavy handed in the story telling. One might say to oneself, “We get it! Green magic bad, Blue magic Good, move on!” Even so, the magic accoutns for the best visuals of the entire film, and the portrayal of spells alone is a highlight of the entire experience.
Unfortunately the story does not hold a candle to the visuals. To be absolutely fair to the writing team the story is both true to the original concept and also a fair adaptation to the big screen. Many elements that Warcraft Veterans have always loved from the original story are told faithfully and any deviations from the source material is done tastefully in a manner that fits a full cinematic experience. Further in defense of the writers, the lore of the world of Azeroth has had over two decades of talented contributors to expand it. It would take anyone hundreds of hours to filter through all of the material in even an abbreviated attempt at understanding the full story. The fact that the script is able to be as concise as it is, given the amount of lore available, is worthy of applause.
However, and this is a big however, Warcraft leaves a great deal wanting for the uninitiated. On the one hand viewers familiar with deep Warcraft lore will immediately recognize names and locations that are mentioned. A passing visual of a crazed laughing Orc warrior to a casual moviegoer is admittedly unsettling, whereas to the Warcraft player it is immediately recognized as an appreciated depiction of the Laughing Skull Clan. A passing reference to Prince Varian to a casual viewer is a shoehorned and forced moment trying to introduce the King’s heir in an already crowded movie, a moment that feels disingenuous, where Warcraft Veterans will cover their mouths and hide their gasps knowing exactly what future lies ahead of Varian and the role he will have to play.
To make the point simply, the story is very much written in a way that takes a lot for granted. The mention of Goldshire means nothing to some viewers, and for others it is a location they’ve spent hours of their life in and around. There are so many moments in the telling that glance over iconic Azeroth locations and events, it is a genuine shame that there will be viewers that never get this context. At one point Durotan and King Llane meet in the shadows of what is called “A great black rock that touches the sky”, and in that moment a huge element of the significance is lost on those who don’t know what Blackrock Spire is.
The story is by no means a bad story, it succeeds in telling the story it wishes to tell. However, the ending is left very hollow in the obvious stage setting of a sequel. Unfortunately the tale comes off as mediocre and overflowing with name drops. To an un-invested watcher this can be very draining, and make the whole experience feel too forced and full of itself and the world it is trying to cram into too small of a package. To those familiar with the story and the world though, every even minor cameo and reference is a grain of sugar, another sprinkle on top of a delicious cake. Overall the story has nothing that wrecks it or that makes it shine, but it does succeed in being very faithful in telling a tale that Warcraft fans will fully reinvest in.
Again we see a double edged take when our characters are portrayed. First it should be noted that the movie does a very impressive job of making each character visually distinct. You know immediately, at a glance, which character you are seeing, which aids in the story telling as the uninitiated will quickly lose track of some names in the shuffle of dialogue. There is also credit that must be given for making these characters both prominent in portrayal for the movie and also a fair representation of their video game counterparts. Doomhammer is immediately recgonized in his fearsome might, even if some viewers will only know him as “the big one with Thor’s hammer”.
The real problem with these characters is that they are forced into one dimensional portrayals. Lothar particularly is a wasted opportunity. As the main character of the tale he is portrayed center stage as the Knight Champion of Azeroth, and this is where he shines. You see the warrior, you see his drive, you see his martial prowess, and every scene Lothar wields a blade in he is absolutely the character we all know and love from the Orc Wars. However, that’s the only Lothar we see. Even when grieving, even when drunk, even when his world has crumbled around him, his emotions are stilted. It is not that his character is shown or portrayed badly, it is simply to acknowledge that he is not given the time nor opportunities he needs to be anything more than the Knight Champion.
This is where the movie arguably suffers the most. Every main character essentially gets one major characteristic, and that’s where it ends. The actors do a fine role in each of their parts, and you feel that the characters are genuine. It is just unfortunate that so much of their character has to be left to the viewers to extrapolate upon. Now, for a Warcraft fan this really isn’t too much of a problem. Medivh is very one dimensional and even flat in his depiction, but those familiar with the lore know this is because of a huge number of factors that have shaped Medivh to this point, chief among them a demonic influence.
The characters are not bad, their portrayal is not terrible, and they are each unique enough that they are perceived as individuals. There are even cameos in the background of characters that fans will appreciate, such as Kilrogg Deadeye observing a battle even though he has no lines and is never mentioned by name. That being said, there are so many characters sharing the stage none of them get the time, writing, lines or events they need to shine on their own. For a new viewer this is easily a case of too many cooks in the kitchen ruining the pot. For the Warcraft Veteran though, it is an endless buffet of familiar names and faces, none of them unappreciated in appearance even if stifled in portrayal.
If there was one part of this move I have the most trouble saying something positive about, it would be the timing and pacing of events. There’s a lot that can be said here of how the experience could be improved. The first instance that jumps out is the quickness of scene transition. The visuals are so stunning and deep that you want to take them in like a deep breath of sea breeze on a cool morning. Yet you’re never given this chance, each scene is a true masterpiece of detail that is whisked away before any true appreciation can sink in. It is as though the audience is being given a tour of The Louvre, but must jog through the entire museum. You get to see so many wonderful depictions done patiently by talented artists, but never more than at a passing glance.
With only a two hour run time the narration has to pick up much of the slack, so we see a great deal of narration. Clunky sentences and run-ons abound in the telling of this story, and you just wish you had the time to absorb what a character says, and means for that matter, but before you can another is already speaking. Now, to a keen observer these details are not wasted, but again this relies very heavily on a prior understanding of Warcraft events and Lore.
The characters and plot have to be condensed to fit the running time, which in many ways overburdens the movie. The story of Warcraft is a long, well written, complex adventure epic. To condense even a portion of the great Orc Wars into this run time is no mean feat. It is fair to say the writers did the best they could given the overwhelming amount of information they had to incorporate. It is also fair to say that the movie would have benefited from even twenty more minutes of time. There is a cardinal rule of movies that whenever possible something should be shown rather than told. Warcraft is burdened by how much it must tell, making it cumbersome. At least we can say that what we’re told is told with detail, but even then it relies very heavily on outside knowledge to fully understand the exposition.
The Bottom Line
So is Warcraft a good movie? I’m going to have to say both Yes and No. It is certainly entertaining, and the visuals are just about the best you could ever hope to see. The CGI is breathtaking, the combat immersive with unique attacks, individual weapons, and no axe swing or soldier’s death is recycled. The story is passable but overburdened and sometimes clunky, and even though characters can be one dimensional in their portrayal they are distinct and very much their own unique selves.
Really the bottom line is that you will get more out of this experience if you are a fan of Warcraft. Even if you’ve not played anything beyond the original Real Time Strategy games, and even if you haven’t played those in decades, you’ll find Warcraft to be a familiar story that leaves you smiling. For those who have explored the World of Warcraft and fully enveloped themselves in the lore and depth of story, this is an incredibly enjoyable experience. Fans won’t even mind the clunky exposition or stilted portrayals, since they are able to lean on their outside knowledge to fill in the gaps and have already absorbed the significance many of the names carry.
At the end of the day Warcraft is a love letter to the fans, and a beautiful love letter at that. Just like a love letter an unintended reader may find the material exceedingly esoteric and may miss many of the references intended for the recipient. But that’s because the letter isn’t meant for anyone else. It is meant as a sincere expression to a specific audience, and the intended reader is going to enjoy every line of it, hanging on every word.
If you enjoy Warcraft as much as I do, you’re going to enjoy this film. I would easily give it a 4/5. Not perfect, but exceedingly enjoyable.
If you aren’t a fan of the franchise, or have never experienced it, this may not be the best place to start. For the uninitiated Warcraft is easily a 2/5, sub par and somewhat full of itself.
Which of the Warcraft Games have you played? Did you enjoy the characters and cameos in the movie? Do you cry out at night For The Alliance, or For The Horde? Leave a comment below with your thoughts on the movie, your favorite pieces of Warcraft lore, or give a war cry so your enemies know whose side you’re on! And as always, remember the first rule when it comes to the Fantasy Genre.
P.S. – For The Horde!!!