I was chatting with someone in PR prior to going to see a screening of Warcraft yesterday and he said in a comforting tone “It isn’t as bad as they say.” Considering it’s at 18% on Rotten Tomatoes, it would have to be pretty bad indeed. Maybe it was my lowered expectations, but I sort of enjoyed Warcraft. Director Duncan Jones literally begged to make this movie (his previous films Moon and Source Code were imaginative low budget SF films.) Apparently he’s a gamer and felt a connection to the material, and even co-wrote the script with Charles Leavitt (In the Heart of the Sea, Blood Diamond.)
In case you missed the last decade, World of Warcraft is one of the all-time most successful games, a fantasy MMORG that at its peak in 2010 had 12 million subscribers who paid $20 a month to wander around a world called Azeroth where humans, elves, dwarves, Orcs, Taurens, and hundreds of other creatures wandered a richly detailed fantasy world while chatting it up with pals and killing one another. I’ve never been a paid subscriber, but I’ve used it to while away the winter months a few times. There’s always a bit of a thrill, for me, when discovering some new land, its towers gradually rendering beneath a hippogriff’s wings. It’s a dorky reduction of everything that I love about high fantasy, with the added satisfaction of smashing things.
Since its 2010 high, WoW has gradually declined to the point where they don’t even say how many subscribers it has any more. (Last report was a mere 5 million players a month.) The reasons for its decline are varied: the rise of mobile gaming, player maturation, not enough updates…my suspicion is that things like WoW simply cycle out as new forms of entertainment take over. I’ve actually become mildly addicted to Hearthstone, the free to play CCG version of Warcraft that works on phone, tablet or computer. Supposedly I’m one of some 50 million devotees, so no danger of Gul’dan and the totally disappearing from the world’s consciousness just yet.
Anyway the movie; films based on video games are notoriously wretched, and Warcraft The Movie will do little to persuade anyone to start playing. It does stick to the details and feeling of Azeroth, however, so even for a dabbler like me there was a welcome familiarity.
The story is no great shakes. It involves an Orcish invasion to Azeroth from another dimension, led by the sinister warlock Gul’dan. The orc conscience is represented by Durotan, mocapped by Toby Kebbell. He has a wife and a newly born green baby, a sidekick and an antagonist: a tough orc captain called Blackhand who is mocapped by Clancy Brown, who makes a living playing tough captains of one species or another so hooray fro typecasting.
Meanwhile, the human contingent is led by Sir Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel) and good King Llane (Dominic Cooper), a both brooding and disengaged wizard named Medivh and a young upstart magic user named Kadgar.
Oh and there’s a half orc named Garona played by Paula Patton, who ends up being a go between as these factions fight and frolic.
The plot, which takes place in the hazy long ago before the game time, involves running around and being alarmed about this and that, sort of like the game mechanics. It hardly bears repeating. In tribute to the game, where you can play either side, neither Orcs nor Humans are shown to be bad; they just have bad leaders who get them to start mixing it up while stealing souls, murdering villages and being generally unsociable.
The humans are human, Garona is human except for some tiny tusks, and the orcs are all motion capture; it may surprise you to know that the CGI characters are for more sympathetic and interesting than the humans, who seem overwhelmed by the green screeniness of it all. The CGI actors are under no such limitations. Some are already saying that Durotan is the greatest CGI character yet, and while I won’t go that far, he is definitely one of the greatest; even his eyes show shades of emotion, a tribute to the fidelity of the motion capture technique used on human actors.
I’m not sure how much of Warcraft is actually ground breaking, but the character animation is amazing, and the designs are breathtaking: as in the game, the orcs are all vaguely porcine heads atop ridiculously muscular bodies with huge hands, but their gear is fascinating, from a fellow who has made a sort of waistcoat from two dinosaur skeletons to Durotan’s giant frostwolf mount. The human costume design is also stunning, from the armor to the swords. WETA Workshop helped with a lot of the creature and prop work and it’s a leap forward from anything else I’ve seen from them. There’s real imagination and passion on screen in the world making.
Of course, any time you’re paying more attention to the costumes than the story it’s not a good sign. I saw this in a 3D IMAX screening, and just looking at the pictures was probably the point. The story left plenty of room for, nay CRIED OUT IN ANGUISH FOR a sequel, but along the way a lot more of the main cast got bumped off than you’d expect in a would be summer blockbuster. I squirmed in my seat a little at some of the longer dialogue exchanges, but Jones and Leavitt took this story seriously, and their own sincerity wards off a bit of cynicism. While Warcraft the game only reflects the feeling that you put into it, Jones’s Azeroth is place where family, companionship and honor count, and it’s a fairly heartwarming message beneath the bone crushing, liver stabbing battles.
An early scene shows Durotan and Draka, his wife, lying in bed having couple talk about their soon to arrive baby, complete with tummy rubbing and hand holding. It’s a far cry from Tolkien’s sexless Orcs who are spawned from vats somewhere in Sauron’s dungeons, its hinted, and helps make Warcraft’s Orcs more human than the actual humans.
I’d also like to call out the score by Ramin Djawadi (Game of Thrones theme) which is symphonic, loud and tuneful, also in keeping with the spirit of the game.
I did have one kvetch though: in the game, you can play as either gender in any species, and one of the things I like about WoW is that there are tons of incidental characters, NPCs and even players who are females of all races and alliances. I was expecting to see that world brought to the screen, but no, this is Hollywood, and having women casually involved in the story would shrivel the genitals of the boys who want to see the film. Yes, there are Strong Female Characters: Garona is one of the leads, and Llane’s wise queen, Lady Tiara (Ruth Negga) and Draka, Durotan’s fierce mate (Anna Galvin) are all capable, but the rest of the world is mostly boys all the time. In council meetings only men speak, there are no female incidental characters really, altough there are many Orc ladies hanging around in the battle. They don’t get any real characterization the way the male orcs do, though. Proof yet again that Hollywood will shut down representation even when its present in the source material.
Warcraft was made by Legendary Pictures in conjunction with their new Chinese owners, Wanda, and it’s already opened big in China, where MMORGs are a way of life and prisoners were once conscripted to grind for artifacts to sell on the grey market. I have no idea if the film will be a hit in the US and we’ll get the glut of intended sequels. With WoW itself sort of getting sunsetted it seems unlikely, but Warcraft the movie is at least proof that CGI can have heart. It’s a lesson I hope more filmmakers pick up on.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.