warning: movie spoilers
Considering that I’ve written a lengthy article on movies based on video games I’d like to see done well, it was a given that I’d be watching Warcraft to see how a big-budget game adaptation shook out. There’s only one hiccup: I’m a franchise newbie.
Oh, I understand the difference between the Alliance and the Horde, and I even know what Night Elves are. I know that WoW is not Warcraft I, II, or III, and that Hearthstone exists in the broader universe of the series. I’ve even toured the Blizzard campus in Irvine thanks to well-connected friends, but admittedly it was lost on me. My favorite property, the one I’ve played beyond a cursory half-hour excursion, is Diablo.
So I thought, what better an opportunity to weigh the comprehensibility of Warcraft than a blank slate who really wants to see good video game adaptations? How will the epic settings and the cast of characters ranging from human to pure CGI orcs come off to me, a newbie?
The short answer is… not very well.
There’s been an enormous amount of coverage of the film’s critical panning and its box office nosedive. After seeing the film, that makes a sad sort of sense. Purely as a film, it hangs together like an ill-fitting suit. At several points I wanted to find the editor and make him extend or eliminate scenes that lasted all of thirty seconds and served only the thinnest of narrative purposes. That said, even the best editor—and Paul Hirsch, who has edited The Empire Strikes Back and Carrie, is no slouch—can’t overcome a clunky script.
It’s not even just the jarring brevity of the scenes, but the lack of conclusion within them. Dialog hangs in the air, apparently to import intensity or weight, but it really just feels like if the camera had lingered instead of darting off to some other location, the characters would still be standing around awkwardly. The actors tried valiantly to bring their characters to life in a CGI-heavy environment, but frankly they were only skin—green or otherwise—deep.
Plus, there were just so many of them: scores of orcs and humans, all of them vying for screen time, almost none of them getting enough to flesh them out. Characterization is imparted with expositional speeches or by tragic circumstance.
This article isn’t just my critique of the film’s pacing and script. These elements are so crucial to the experience of watching a movie, however, that it’s hard to divorce them from the experience as a whole. But did I understand the plot, and did I understand the importance of various references and plot devices?
Maybe about half the time I did. Mostly I just had questions.
Is Garona half-human? If so (and the mystery of her parentage does seem to be a plot point), then what happened to all the humans back on Draenor? And—be warned for dark content here—did the movie really imply that her bones were strengthened (by repeated breaks) because of sexual abuse—or was it just physical abuse?
Why did it matter that Khadgar renounced his vows? Why did Lothar seem so disdainful toward mages? And why, once Khadgar went back to the Kirin Tor, did it literally only take thirty seconds for them to believe him about Medivh’s Fel corruption and the portal? How was the information about Alodi in a book if no one beyond the arch council knew of Alodi’s existence? Did Medivh have the only copy of the book?
Why did the Kirin Tor mage let him walk into the random portal that appeared in the cube without any concern? Wouldn’t a non-apostate, high-ranked mage want to be the one to investigate an occurrence like that?
Why could Alodi expend enough energy to appear as a spirit figure that could move around and direct Khadgar to a book, but couldn’t manage to speak or be even slightly less cryptic? What has Alodi been doing in that cube the whole time this has gone on? Why not try to alert someone to Medivh’s Fel use earlier?
How and why did Medivh get involved with Fel magic in the first place? Has he always been using it? Was he possessed and then started using Fel magic, or was it the other way around?
I think the confusion boils down to a muddled script and an assumption that most of the movie’s audience will be fans. No one needed to explain what the Kirin Tor are, or what the status of mages are in the general world, because fans already know. Medivh’s Fel corruption was probably explored in depth in the game’s lore and the movie was able to get by with shorthand. I understand the constraints of running time, but I also can recognize a lumbering script when I hear one. And some of the answers I’m looking for might even be in the film, but I missed them in the frenetic storytelling.
The movie wasn’t without its bright points, however jarring I found it. Durotan was the heart of the orcs’ story, and his attempt to protect his family and to overthrow Gul’Dan for the sake of the orcs is the most compelling element of the plot. (I think a movie purely from Durotan’s POV would have been a more successful narrative, but I digress.) In terms of the humans, I found Lothar to be a fairly reactive character—he orbits the plot, not the other way around—but likable enough. Lady Taria Wrynn was a kind, lovely person, and her moments on screen packed a punch for their humanity. Llane’s sacrifice was noble, and heartbreaking, even if it was contrived. Garona was a bad-ass in the face of enormous personal misfortune. I wish we had gotten to know these characters more. They were the stars of the film, not the golems or the battle scenes or the many locations.
Perhaps Warcraft‘s pitfalls—pacing, handwaved lore, and unanswered questions—are universal when dealing with such a huge distillation. But perhaps not. If Warcraft had not tackled so much for its first foray into cinema, maybe it would have been easier to follow.
The movie is deftly set up for a sequel, and my hope is that the writers take their time—that they follow less characters, allow us to get to know more of them organically, and stop zipping from location to location purely for spectacle. Because even casual moviegoers appreciate fantasy archetypes, and Warcraft has them.