Video Games have had a notorious legacy when being adapted to film – from the first live-adaptation Super Mario Bros. to recent efforts like Hitman: Agent 47, many of these movies have been derided by critics and audiences. Even the better movies like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and Mortal Kombat only make it to the standard of average.
The adaptation of the Warcraft series seemed like it could have broken this bleak run – it was directed by Duncan Jones whose previous movies have been critically acclaimed, the series has a large expanded universe, and the game’s developers were involved with the production. Even these convergences are not enough to save this fantasy movie.
The Orc warlock Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) leads a party of warriors from their dying world to the lustrous world of Azeroth. The Orcs are ordered to capture as many citizens as possible so the portal can be open long enough for all the Orcs can come to Azeroth. One Orc chieftain, Durotan (Toby Kebbel), has doubts about his leader’s motives and methods and seeks help from the kingdoms of Azeroth to stop Gul’dan and bring peace to the land.
The war-effort to stop the Horde is led by Sir Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), the commander of the armies of Stormwind and the King’s (Dominic Cooper) brother-in-law. Lothar seeks out various mages and is ordered by the King to find out as much information as possible as Stormwind prepare their defence. There are betrayals and conflicted loyalties on both sides.
The Warcraft movie has been in production since 2006, and Blizzard Entertainment had Sam Raimi attached. Blizzard even rebuked the infamous Uwe Boll when he said he was interested in directing. However, the efforts have all been to no avail.
I have never played a Warcraft game so my reference point was Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, the gold standard of the fantasy genre because of their world building and characters. Warcraft does have a strong opening scene as a knight and an Orc prepare to have a fight before Durotan tells the origins of the war between the Alliance and the Horde. Warcraft is technically an adaptation of the first game Warcraft: Orcs & Humans but most people will see it as a prequel to the World of Warcraft online role-playing game. In some territories like the UK the movie is called Warcraft: The Beginning showing it is a prequel.
Video game critic Ben “Yahztee” Crowshaw jokingly said “f**k the Alliance” when he reviewed World of Warcraft: Cataclysm. There is a certain level of truth to that statement because the Horde were the more interesting faction. Orcs, goblins and similar creatures are often just mindless soldiers for an evil overlord – the orcs in Warcraft are shown to be a more complex warrior race like the Klingon from Star Trek and Dothraki in Game of Thrones – they enjoy warfare but they have a sense of honor when facing their enemies – having trial by combat and believe in fair-play. Durotan is the embodiment of these values as he tries to do the best for both his clan and family. There is humanity on that side of the war despite their monstrous appearance. The Horde has the more interesting characters and better acting, especially Kebbell as Durotan, the most well drawn character in the whole movie. Daniel Wu made a decent antagonist as he uses dark magic that corrupts the land, has no problem killing living things and torturing people. Composer Ramin Djawadi (who also worked on Game of Thrones) gave the Horde a really effective theme, using tribal drums and horns to give the music an imposing feel.
The Alliance is boring in comparison. They are just a generic collection of humans and wizards debating their next action to contend the Orcs. We got the noble hero, the young wizard, the reluctant senior wizard and the king who is trying to lead the defence of the kingdom as the other realms ask for help. There are scenes lifted from other fantasy movies like the Council of Elrond from Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Rings and certain betrayals come from the Tolkien series.
Jones and his co-writer Charles Leavitt were too willing to borrow ideas from other fantasy movies and books. When one young soldier appears on screen and interacts with the other members of the Alliance my first thought was ‘oh you are so dead’. The number of betrayals in the movie tries to compete with Game of Thrones – but Game of Thrones has a long build up. Many characters also do a noble sacrifice, preparing to give their lives for a greater cause – once or twice is fine but the movie does it four times.
The poor acting makes the Alliance even worst. Vikings star Travis Fimmel is okay, and he knows how to wield a sword. Dominic Cooper and Paula Patton (playing the half-orc Garona) are good actors and some of the better performers on the Alliance side, but Ben Schnetzer, and Ben Foster were dreadful as the mages. They were so stiff that it was embarrassing to watch.
The money was well spent on the special effects at least. The Orcs were motion captured performances, and they were so wonderfully detailed – there were cracks on their skin and small hairs on their bodies. It makes that look like real living creatures. The fantasy creatures like the wolves and griffins were also fantastic to look at, particularly the hairy, hulking wolves. Jones shows competence with the action sequences giving us a big battle fix. They are perfectly crafted as Orcs have punch-ups and humans and orcs battle. There were several sweeping shots like The Lord of the Rings movies.
Warcraft was shot in British Columbia which was beautiful for the forests and mountains but when we see inside the buildings interiors, and exteriors are too glossy. Compared to other fantasy movies and TV shows Warcraft looks too much like a sound stage – it’s too perfect. The worlds of Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The Chronicles of Narnia and Pirates of the Caribbean felt lived in.
Jones has stated that 20 minutes had to be cut for the theatrical version, and it does show at times – the movie sometimes just skips to events and cuts some subplots to their bare minimum. One example is when a character in the Horde betrays another and that moment is made pointless when we see the next scene.
One of the big defences of Warcraft is it was made for fans. That’s all well and good, but a movie needs to appeal beyond its fanbase if it wants to start a new franchise. The special effects are spectacular, and Jones can handle the huge scale of epic adventure. The Hordes were perfectly represented but the Alliance was a dull collection of fantasy tropes.