Length: 123 mins
Writers: Duncan Jones, Chris Leavitt
Dir.: Duncan Jones
Starring: Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, Toby Kebbel, Ben Schnetzer, Ruth Negga
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Hollywood can’t make good video-game adaptations. For some reason, the big studios just can’t seem to figure them out – but it’s not through lack of trying. The industry has been trying to cash in on this market since the early 90s, when they made the utterly appalling Super Mario Bros. Since then, there have been numerous attempts, but so far the most successful title is 2001’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – and that was (arguably) still a flop. That movie made $131 million domestically on a budget of $115 million and can attribute a lot of it’s popularity to simple nostalgia for the Tomb Raider games… and the fact that it had Angelina Jolie in it.
Warcraft: The Beginning, though, is kind of a big deal. By far the most successful Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) of all time, WoW has around 5.5 million subscribers and claimed that 100 million accounts have been created since the game’s release in 2004. The universe in which the Warcraft games are set is a melting pot of genres, combining traditional Western fantasy (i.e. elves, dwarves, orcs etc.) with elements of steampunk, science fiction and… Kung Fu Panda (seriously) thrown in for good measure. It’s a vibrant and colourful world with its own deep and complex mythology that can be quite daunting to the uninitiated, and this lore is constantly being added to with the release of new expansions every few years. This was always going to be a huge challenge to adapt into a movie, basically. So, did Hollywood manage to pull it off? Well…
The narrative is something of a mash-up between the first Warcraft game (1994’s Warcraft: Orcs and Humans) and one of the relatively recent expansions. Fleeing their own dying world, Orcs (a proud race of green-skinned warrior body-builders) invade Azeroth (essentially a fantasy medieval Europe) and start making a nuisance of themselves. This brings them into conflict with Humans, who would really rather not have their planet colonised by these war-like monsters. The story is split between the main human commander, intent on saving his world from this hoard of axe-wielding nutters; and an orc chieftain who grows increasingly suspicious of the orc leader – mainly because he can kill people by literally waving his hand at them. There’s magic, sword-fighting, wizards and the obligatory fantasy movie scene of someone raising a sword in the air and cheering at the end.
I must admit, I’ve never actually played a Warcraft game – so obviously, I can’t actually say whether this is a good adaptation of the source material or not. I made a point of going to see this movie with a friend of mine who has played a few of the games before, and he told me that there were a load of references that I totally missed and that fans of the game may get a kick out of. As a movie in its own right, though, I can say that while there was a lot of stuff I liked about it – there is something about Warcraft that just doesn’t really work.
It’s quite apparent from the very beginning that the movie is intended to be the launch pad for a franchise. Using World of Warcraft as a framing device, the story is told in the style of a prequel – effectively laying the ground-work for further films. As a result, the movie seems far more preoccupied with establishing the Warcraft world than with the events of its story. Despite this, the film is actually surprisingly light on exposition, in that many of the ideas it introduces are left almost entirely unexplained. For example, one of the main character’s is a mage of some sort, an exile from an order of wizards that are apparently well known in the movie’s universe. But the audience is given no more information about them – we’re not told what the wizards do or why they do it. They’re just a thing what exists.
There were a number of points during Warcraft where I literally had no idea what the characters were talking about. This isn’t because the story was difficult to follow – at it’s core, the main narrative is actually quite straight forward. It’s because the film assumes that the audience has prior knowledge – to use the previous example, it may be that people who have played WoW know exactly who that character is, what they can do and what those wizards are all about. But that’s not the case for the majority of film-goers. It can be refreshing to have a movie that prefers to show its story rather than tell it, but a lack of exposition can make a film difficult to follow.
Despite the lack of exposition, there’s a lot of stuff crammed into Warcraft‘s surprisingly short run-time – the film tries to establish everything at once to get it out of the way. This leaves little or no time for the audience to really get to know the characters. While this is less of an issue with the orcs – those bits are surprisingly well-done in comparison – several of the human characters get no development whatsoever. This undermines a lot of the narrative – particularly the final scenes – as it depends on the relationships between the characters and they just aren’t established very effectively. These parts may have been cut out of the movie (I got the distinct impression that it had been drastically edited to fit the arbitrary two hour run-time), but it means that it doesn’t really earn its twists or reveals.
While I’m not sure if its a good adaptation or not, if you’re a fan of WoW then you’ll probably get a kick out of it. While I personally enjoyed watching it, I doubt this movie will appeal to – or was ever intended for – a wider audience.