Video game adaptations have been plagued by misfortune and subpar quality. From Super Mario Bros. to the more recent Ratchet and Clank, they tend to be met with mediocre reviews at best and distaste from the fans who feel the filmmakers got it all wrong. Being the video game fan that I am, I see many of these films, including the recently released adaptation Warcraft. Be warned now that there are some spoilers below.
The World of Warcraft (aka WoW) online role-playing game was a huge success. I have lost track of the number of friends and coworkers I’ve known over the past decade that have played it. I was never one of them. I would hear conversations about WoW and just be lost. To me, Warcraft is synonymous with the real-time strategy game that came first, titled Warcraft: Orcs & Humans. That was the game I played for hours on end, and even though I haven’t played it in over 15 years, that is still the Warcraft I am most familiar with.
I thought perhaps that would work to my advantage. I was not going into this with a preconceived notion of what to expect. I have not spent hundreds of hours in WoW, and I was never steeped so deeply into the world and mythology that I had high hopes for their depiction on the big screen. For me, even though this is a video game movie, it is a fantasy film first, because my point of reference for the source material is just too far removed. As long as it had orcs and humans fighting each other at some point, pretty much all of my expectations were going to be met.
The movie opened up with a voice-over explaining that orcs and humans have been fighting for ages, accompanied by what I realized later was an unknown point in the far future, a point the movie never gets to again. We then find the orcs as they are going through a portal, taking them to another world, one full of humans, elves, and dwarves. Again, this is something I didn’t fully understand until later in the movie. What follows are various skirmishes and battles between the orcs and humans as this new world tries to defend itself against the orc menace.
However, it isn’t that simple. The magic that powers the grand orc leader Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) is filled with death, making a smaller clan of the orcs, led by Durotan (Toby Kebbell), wary of their leader. This causes Durotan to try and unseat the ruler by allying himself with the humans. Also in the mix is the guardian Medivh (Ben Foster), an ultra-powerful mage; the human King of Azeroth, Llane Wrynn (Dominic Cooper); the king’s brother-in-law and warrior, Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel); orc-human hybrid Garona (Paula Patton); and disgraced former guardian-in-training Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer).
The actors all do well in their roles. Being a big fan of the show Vikings, I was excited to see Travis Fimmel in a lead film role, and he did not disappoint. Also impressive were the orcs, who had top-notch voice work and mostly impressive CGI. I say mostly impressive because the CGI ranges from spectacular to average. There are moments where some of the orcs look like they’re really there, from the way their hair moves to the texture of their skin. I was highly impressed by their look, that is, until we saw Gul’dan for the first time. The hunched over and shrouded orc leader rarely looked convincingly real to me, the same with many other secondary orcs.
In addition, many of the backgrounds, settings, and other creatures are obviously CGI. It’s almost as if they blew most of their budget and time on getting Durotan and a couple other orcs to look pristine and just didn’t have enough resources for the remaining effects to look as good. None of this is to say the CGI was terrible, I just expect more in 2016. I am admittedly a big fan of practical effects over CGI, but I have no issue with CGI if it’s done well and right.
My next big complaint is the story. As I mentioned earlier, I am not well-versed in the history of the Warcraft universe. I thought maybe that would be a benefit, but as it turns out, it may have been a hindrance. I felt like I had no idea what the hell was going on for half of the movie. There was little-to-no explanation of who certain characters were and why they mattered.
This is especially true for the guardian Medivh. I assumed by his title that the guardian is someone that guards the realm, but how and why? He definitely sucks at his job given the orcs invaded the realm without him knowing at all. Then it turns out (SPOILER!) that he is the one that brought the orcs to their land because…uh…reasons. Something about him being corrupted by magic that made him do things he didn’t remember, but none of it really made much sense to me.
I felt like we were dumped into the middle of a story as they throw around names and places as if we're supposed to understand all of it. This isn’t unheard of. Many films or shows try to keep from being exposition-heavy by not over-explaining, and yet are still easier to follow. I had never read any of the Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings novels prior to seeing the films, and I may not have understood absolutely everything in the films, but I rarely felt lost or confused. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring made great use of a voice-over and corresponding flashback montage to bring us up-to-date on the important aspects of the universe at the beginning of the film, and I would have appreciated something similar in Warcraft instead of the brief and uninformative opening voice-over they used.
I have seen a few people defend Warcraft by saying there are a large amount of books and thousands of hours of gameplay story behind the film, but I don’t think I should have to play all of the games and read the books just to understand what is happening. I was also a little surprised that the story was left open. Almost no major thread was wrapped up. The only closure we really had was that Medivh had been dealt with, Durotan’s rebellion played out with virtually zero impact on anything, and Lothar killed a semi-important orc leader. I am assuming they are looking to make more of these films, which is fine with me, I just hope they are a little more coherent going forward.
This isn’t to say the story is all bad. A few things are incredibly predictable, such as Medivh being evil (sort of), but it also puts in a few surprises. One such surprise is the way the orcs are presented and the story arc of Durotan. Through him, we are given a humanizing look at the orcs. Some are still presented as being one-dimensional violent beasts but Durotan has a wife and newborn child that he loves. We see him as a three-dimensional character that fights because he has to, but all he really wants is the best for his people and to keep his loved ones safe. It is a great change of pace from what could have easily been a black and white situation where the orcs are bad and the humans are good.
Warcraft was certainly not the worst video game adaptation I’ve seen, but it’s also not the best. Held back by under-explanation and mixed-quality CGI, this never really felt like a complete story, just a stop along the way. That being said, I do think this has potential to become a fun series, but for now it is just a fairly average fantasy film. If you are a hardcore WoW player or have a greater understanding of the Warcraft universe, perhaps you’ll get more out of it, but for anyone like me that has little to no knowledge of the Warcraft lore, this might not be for you.
Andy Snyder is a writer and regular contributor for Happy Dragon Pictures. He loves video games, films from all over the world, screenwriting and kittens.