The World of Warcraft film has been castigated as both poor movie and a terrible adaptation. But, as someone who has walked the virtual battlefield, I’m not sure I agree.
Sitting down in the cinema to finally watch Warcraft (saddled with the amended title Warcraft: The Beginning in Australia and anywhere outside the US) felt like a particularly noteworthy stop on a long, rich journey; one that began over a decade ago when, after more than a little peer pressure, I succumbed to the siren song of Blizzard Software’s famous (or infamous) online role-playing game, World of Warcraft. For me and millions of others, this digital community became a prominent fixture of everyday life (to an occasionally detrimental extent). Friendships were made (and broken) in the game, digital battlefields slowly transformed into familiar stomping grounds and the richly detailed narrative lore became as dynamic and ingrained in our imaginations as any work of literature.
This game, the people who played it and the story it told became immensely important to us, and for some, it became holy canon. A cinematic appropriation of the Warcraft IP was first hinted at in 2006, and with the curse of the bad video game adaptation at the forefront of our minds, we waited with baited breath. And waited. And kept waiting.
A lot happens in a decade. World of Warcraft (WoW) is still very much alive and kicking, but operating with a fraction of its former player-base. Much of the world has moved on. Indeed, while the majority of my offline social circle once spent as much time together “in-game” as “in-person”, I alone continue to venture into the lands of Azeroth, but only for special occasions. While the game continues to inspire and entertain thousands on a daily basis, and has been continually jury-rigged to remain technologically and conceptually relevant in an ever-expanding (and evolving) industry, WoW is no longer the titan it once was. And so, into this brave new world, is finally delivered Duncan Jones’ long-gestating adaptation.
After the vociferous scorn heaped upon Warcraft, I must admit: I feared the worst. The initial trailers showed varying degrees of promise, but the critical mauling the film has received gave me pause. Indiewire’s labelling of the film as a “Battlefield Earth for the 21st Century” seemed to spell doom for any hope of quality filmmaking, and US audiences have stayed away in droves. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to return to Azeroth, if only to pay my due respects to an old friend. So, with popcorn and soda at the ready, I braced for the worst. But a delightfully surprising thing happened: I found myself thoroughly enjoying this movie. In fact, I’m going to see it again. Is it a good movie? Well, that’s a complicated question…
As a movie lover and filmmaker, I can absolutely appreciate the confusion and disdain this film has sewn in the hearts and minds of critics, and (some) audiences. In fact, I think that most reviews of the film are (more or less) fair and correct in their assertions that Warcraft fails as a movie. Honestly. So many of the fundamental tenants of storytelling have either been fumbled, ignored or (most likely) trimmed in the cutting room (more on that later), that for the uninitiated, the film would undoubtedly feel like an impenetrable, epileptic mess. Dozens of similar looking characters with silly names appear and are referenced with confusing rapidity. Context, backstory and motivation are essentially glossed over with the exception to the absolute necessities, and even then no-one would blame you for barely being able to keep up with what’s going on and who everyone is or what they want. Indeed, the movie barely possesses an ending; so sprawling is the saga upon which it is based that ten movies could barely scratch the surface of the full tale.
But despite a laundry list of complaints that would certainly doom and sink any other tentpole film of this scale and cost, Warcraft has a singular, redemptive quality that permeates every frame: the filmmakers clearly love and respect this material, and if you do too, you will likely love this movie. Despite a few understandable uses of creative license, Blizzard Software’s source material has been rigidly adhered to and respected. This adherence results in a new and truly unique kind of experience, albeit for a select few of us: the opportunity to witness people, places and things you’ve seen countless times before, in an incredible new light. The film’s visual effects and renderings of its fantastical environments and characters are a sight to behold, and almost worth the price of admission alone. The Orcs of this universe feel truly alive and truly alien (with Toby Kebbell in particular lending the character of Durotan a photorealistic presence). Combined with the film’s near-absolute dedication to replicating and recreating entire locales from the game exactly as they once appeared – yet looking better than ever – one starts to appreciate the growing schism between the opinions of fans and critics.
Warcraft does have some universal downsides. Regardless of your particular background, some of the acting throughout will feel a bit awkward, and a few casting choices are more than a touch curious. But at the end of the day, the film’s biggest failing may be that there’s simply too much story for one movie.
When it comes to the characters and story, again, the film’s (almost) absolute fealty to the source material means that any foibles and missteps in cinematic execution are easily glossed over: we (the fans) know exactly who these characters are, where they have come from, where they are going and precisely the nature of the world they are in. We can fill in the gaps. We’ve done the research and already know the tale – now we get to see it play out on a scope like never before. For those of us who have spent time dabbling in the World of Warcraft, this film feels like coming home.
Ultimately, Warcraft does have some universal downsides. Regardless of your particular background (whether it be aficionado or clueless newbie), some of the acting throughout will feel a bit awkward and a few of the casting choices are more than a touch curious. Several of our key players clearly have no idea what’s going on or what the tone is supposed to be, and they honestly can’t be blamed, given how haphazard and bonkers the tone of the games have become. But at the end of the day, the film’s biggest failing may be that there’s simply too much story for one movie. In one of the press junkets for the film, BBC News interviewer Adam Rosser (shortly before rudely and unceremoniously exiting the interview) asked director Duncan Jones how he could possibly hope to fit the entire Warcraft saga into one movie. Jones quickly corrected Rosser, clarifying that he has in fact adapted merely a small shard of the first part of that tale, and hopes to get a chance to continue to tell the rest of the story.
Despite his efforts, Jones is unable to condense the epic scope of this world, it’s history and the context for our story into one film. However, I have no doubt that a vast heap of deleted material has been left lying on the cutting room floor, simply to alleviate the running time. Indeed, the film’s gratuitous and jarring use of cross-dissolves between scenes (a practice rarely used in film editing nowadays and one that is often used as a band-aid to avoid jarring holes in the pacing of the story) belies the excised and trimmed content that had to be sacrificed to keep the length down. Perhaps this content will resurface on home media someday (fingers crossed) and allow Warcraft to be re-assessed and appreciated by the general movie-going public.
As a stand-alone movie, it’s hard to recommend. But as a fan of the franchise, I loved it. I hope we get a sequel. It’s complicated.