Warcraft is one of those rare films you feel truly obligated to see, knowing full well you’ll be disappointed, but still find it an enjoyable experience either way. Duncan Jones’ latest film is big on lore, heavy on graphics, and yet startlingly paper-thin in terms of substance. Let’s not sugar-coat this: there were a hundred and one ways this went wrong – it’s a terrible movie – but I still found it highly entertaining.
It must be prefaced, if you’ve never played World of Warcraft, or any of the three RTS Warcraft games that came before, this film isn’t for you. You can stop reading. Though the film’s cardinal mistake was its overlong buildup to potential sequels in a franchising effort (likely thanks to higher ups at Legendary or Universal), it made a huge mistake by relying solely on the games’ long-faithful fan base. I came into this movie feeling obliged to see it, as did much of the party I went to see it with. It was like a civic duty; even though I haven’t played anytime in recent memory, I’ve spent so many hours playing World of Warcraft since the game was released (literally thousands of hours of my free time), that I felt I needed to pay the film my dues. And I’m not upset I did. This review contains some spoilers.
If you can say one thing about the film, it’s that it feels like Warcraft. That feeling of living in this bizarre and fantastic world – doing quests, flying on Griffins, taking part in raids, polymorphing patrols into sheep – that’s all present, and highly satisfying to relive. Seeing realistic representations of the cities and towns you often frequented, like Ironforge and Stormwind, or even Goldshire, was more gratifying than I expected. Hearing murlocs garble and other distinct sound bytes used in the games, like the clink of hammer on metal, or the crash of a boomstick. All of it made me feel right at home.
But for those who’ve never dived into Azeroth, or Outland, or don’t get the myriad references to lore and games, this film is a serious, jumbled drag. At its height, World of Warcraft boasted some 12 million subscribers, and to expect even a large portion of that audience to likewise feel that obligatory need to see the film is hedging all your eggs into one very unlikely basket, and alienating all the rest.
Because Warcraft is a tale of two opposing sides in a conflict that will determine the fate of both humans and orcs forever, the film requires us to understand both sides of the conflict. The film gives us very little in explanation as to why the orcs are trying to enter the Dark Portal and invade Azeroth, so there’s that, but as far as characterization goes, the orcs are given a fair bit to play around with. They become more fleshed out than the humans do, which is another huge problem with the film. Because the film’s audience is (presumedly) human, it does little in its efforts to make the humans feel like real tangible people, because we naturally side with their cause by default. So that balance of characterization and individuality is more heavily weighted on the orc side of things.
As far as acting goes, I have zero qualms with how the orcs were handled. But man, was the acting cringeworthy in just about every human scene. The worst offender here was Ben Schnetzer’s Khadgar, whose character I still don’t fully comprehend. He just did not gel with the role. Many times he was singled out as being the comedic relief for the film, but at the end he suddenly developed into this insanely powerful mage out of nowhere. Malarkey. We are never given enough backstory for his purpose in the film to make sense, and his dealings with other mages are laughable because he’s hated (for “leaving”?), and the plot just seems to wrap itself around his presence conveniently, which the other mages just begrudgingly accept.
The rest of the cast too was simply poorly chosen, and their respective characters aren’t given enough depth to make them believable. If anything, they feel like placeholders for when the filmmakers decide to add better actors to fill their roles. Anduin Lothar felt like a mix between Captain Jack Sparrow and Aragorn, and his love affair(?) with Garona was probably the most forced thing I’ve ever seen. We don’t learn that Lothar is a terrible father until after it becomes necessary for you to care in the scheme of the plot. He’s a protagonist you’re stuck with, played by a strange choice for the character’s role, and you never really care about him.
Medivh wasn’t terrible, but again we have a character we don’t fully understand. He becomes instrumental in bringing the Burning Legion into Azeroth, but he doesn’t understand or remember how he did it (which is a really stupid way not to explain something), making us unsure if we should trust his character or not, or even sure if he trusts himself or not. We ultimately don’t understand his motives, which is something you can say about most characters in the film.
Garona, played by Paula Patton, is another oddity. We understand her plight, and her acting isn’t terrible. But her origin is muddled and confused. In the original lore she was half-orc, half-human. And that’s how she’s portrayed in this film. But according to her side of the story, she’s supposedly half-orc, half-draenei. But the film skips over that fact, because they give her absolutely zero draenei features, no hooves, no tail, no horns… Instead she is often compared to how she is neither human, nor orc, without mention to her draenei heritage. And yet she is so central to the plot, you’d think this would be ironed out. They could not stick with their decision it seems, so they opted with what would look better for your average moviegoing audiences, a half measure that aided her character none.
The pacing and structure of the film is part of the garbled mess that it turned out to be. There were entire scenes that were unnecessary, as if they weren’t sure if we understood a certain point well enough, so they reiterated the obvious (meanwhile not explaining much of the film’s many questions). There were whole portions of the film that mimicked a chain of quests from World of Warcraft that too made zero sense. The first thirty minutes we get transported from Ironforge, to Stormwind, to Goldshire, to Stormwind, and about four other places, as if this were part of one long questline that you’re trying to complete because you understand that you’ll level up your character by the time you’re through with it. But in a film this just looks and feels like poor writing and bad story choices. And why the heck was King Llane in Goldshire, instead of Stormwind?!
All of this, compounded by some weird filmic decisions, make the film really interesting and fun to pick apart. When Garona is translating between human and orcish, you must make the mental leap that though both of these sides have been speaking regular English throughout the course of the film, the orcs have actually been speaking a different language. This is made even stranger when the brunt of the conversation changes from humans speaking to orcs, to orcs speaking to humans. Because instead of needing translation, his orcish morphs into English. The weird part about this is that while Durotan (the Orc) is speaking in seeming English, instead of Garona also translating his words to the humans in English, she translates them into Orcish. It’s one of those things you’re not supposed to notice I guess. But really, it would have been far better if the orcs just continued speaking in orcish throughout the whole film.
Another bizarre choice occurs at the end of the film, where King Llane and Garona are speaking about important things, but you quickly become confused about the physics of how the scene work. While they speak in normal speed, there is a war happening around them in slow motion. It is incredibly jarring.
Though the graphics were beautifully rendered, and the orcs were wonderfully realized, the fighting choreography was particularly dull. Most of it is either smashing or stabbing, much of which looks fake and rigid. You’ll find better fight scenes in any given episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones.
To pick out everything wrong with the film would take far too long, so I’ll take a step back from it. I did like this film, seeing full well all of its many flaws, but I think it’s going to have an uphill battle at the box office. I fully expect it to be a critical and commercial failure in domestic theaters. So a sequel seems a bit unlikely as of right now. I really think a sequel would do this film justice, though it certainly isn’t deserved. The way I see it, it can’t get any worse than this. After all of the building of a franchise in this film, I’d love to see how a sequel is handled. I need to see what happens to Thrall, aka Orc-Moses. And who knows, it may happen yet. It’s doing excellent in international markets, and in China it’s already broken some records. But when I saw it opening night with some friends, the theater was completely empty. So empty we were able to stage a raid prior to it starting (Naxxramus for those curious).
I fully recommend this film to those who are familiar with Warcraft lore, but absolutely don’t recommend it to those who aren’t.