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June 8, 2016
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June 12, 2016

Movie Curiosities: Warcraft

It’s an old established rule that movies based on video games will inevitably suck. Slightly lesser-known but equally true is the certainty that video games based on movies will be terrible. This despite the fact that video games have become far more elaborate, with backstories and character arcs ripe for adaptation and multimillion-dollar budgets spent on cutscenes and scenarios that play out very much like movies. Likewise, special effects in movies can now be used to build thriving worlds on an epic scale like never before, especially since movie studios have become more eager to invest huge fortunes in “geek-friendly” properties. It seems like the two media are closer together than ever before, yet they still go together like bleach and ammonia.

Why is that? Well, let’s set aside the fact that the creative process is so intricate, dependent on so many countless disparate factors working in perfect harmony together, that the simple act of making a film or a video game is hard enough in itself. And let’s also set aside the fact that adapting any kind of a story is even harder, compounded by its own set of challenges in translating the story and setting to a different medium, with potentially a whole new set of rights holders adding cooks to the kitchen. To say nothing of any cultural/historical baggage that might be carried over by the source material and the difficulty (perhaps even the impossibility) of courting the existing fanbase.

All of that aside, the obvious answer is that video games are an interactive medium while cinema isn’t. There’s also the fact that video games are typically much longer than movies. In fact, gamers have been known to complain about spending $40 for something that loses all replay value within an afternoon, while many filmgoers will flat-out refuse to spend $12 to be stuck in a theater for three hours. But while the two media have their differences, I’d argue that they’re just as incompatible because of their similarities.

At the end of the day, video games and movies both have the same purpose: To craft a compelling story in an immersive world. And both media are allowed to do this through similar tools (visuals, sound effects, score, script, etc.). So answer me this: If a story works perfectly well and successfully draws us in as a video game, where’s the point in trying to reinvent the wheel and accomplish the same feat via film? Or vice versa?

The latest case in point is Warcraft, which has finally hit theaters after at least a decade in development hell. While I’ve personally gone very far out of my way to avoid any kind of addiction to World of Warcraft, a dear childhood friend of mine was heavily into Warcraft II and III. I myself played a bit of Warcraft II, just enough to cheat my way through the single-player campaigns and get my ass repeatedly thrashed online.

From this most basic of exposure, I’m aware that Warcraft has a huge, sprawling mythology behind it. But here’s the problem: It’s a Tolkien ripoff. One sideways glance at the orcs, elves, and dwarves, and you know the folks at Blizzard were stealing from “Lord of the Rings” wholesale long before Peter Jackson made it fashionable to do so. But the games got away with it because… well, they were interactive. With the MMORPG — and even with the RTS games, to a lesser degree — the players had this opportunity to create something within this mythos and help shape it in their own image. Even better, players had the option to play as any race, exploring the story and the mythos from different angles while also deciding for themselves about who the good guys really were.

Going into the movie, I was most afraid that the mythos really would be nothing more than a watered-down Tolkien substitute if that interactive element was removed. Coming out of the movie, my reaction was a bit more complex.

To get this out of the way, the visuals are uniformly gorgeous. The CGI looks spectacular, the production design is stellar, and the fight scenes have a nicely visceral thrill to them. Major kudos to the sound designers, the CGI animators, and the stunt team — all of them work together in such a way that when a CGI fist slams into something, it lands with a sickening crunch that I could actually feel.

And of course, I remain a huge fan of Ramin Djawadi, who steps in to compose the score. The misstep of Dracula Untold aside, I still know Djawadi as the man who gave us the fist-pumpingly awesome music from Pacific Rim, “Game of Thrones”, and the first Iron Man. The score here is easily up to that same standard, brutal and epic in a way that perfectly conjures imagery of a massive brawl between two huge armies out for blood.

Additionally, I was lucky enough to watch the film with a friend who actually plays WoW, and she was jumping out of her seat with glee over all the inside jokes and Easter Eggs tucked away into every corner. From the spells to the costumes to the massive city skylines, she assured me that every last detail looked perfectly like the game come to life.

But here’s the thing: None of that was ever going to be the problem. This movie had too much money and too much effort put into it, and with Blizzard involved, anyone brought on would be determined to do right by the fans. Fidelity to the source material, epic scope and scale, dazzling visuals, none of these were ever going to be issues. It was always going to be about the story and the characters. And of course that’s where we run into problems.

To start with, the cast is woefully subpar. The film brings us larger-than-life figures that demanded to be played by someone on the level of Ian McKellen, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, and so on. These characters needed actors with enough gravitas to sell themselves as legendary kings and warriors while also holding the screen against so much CGI. And the best we can get are Dominic Cooper, Ruth Negga, Ben Foster, and Paula Patton. Don’t get me wrong, I love all of those actors (and Patton admittedly had some wretched fangs to deal with), but not a one of them was cut out for this. Glenn Close appears in a small but prominent uncredited cameo and she acquits herself beautifully, but that’s it.

Special mention must be given to Travis Fimmel and Ben Schnetzer, both of whom are laughably, pitifully, hopelessly out of their depth. Fimmel plays our de facto human protagonist, a great warrior with all the soul and emotional range of a golf club. As for Schnetzer’s character, he’s your typical “Chosen One” archetype, but his screen presence is completely nil. He doesn’t show anywhere near enough intelligence or personality to sell the character and justify his importance to the story. That isn’t even getting started on the banter between these two, which is so bland and void of chemistry that every line falls flat on the floor. These two characters are the main protagonists of the film, and a day after seeing this movie, I doubt I could remember enough about either one of them to pick them out of a lineup if I tried.

What’s really quite funny is that the orcs are all performed by motion-capture, and they give the best performances in the movie. Toby Kebbell gives a powerhouse performance as Durotan, our leading orc character. Anna Galvin plays Durotan’s wife as a bona fide badass with a strong beating heart. Robert Kazinsky plays an orc who’s conflicted in his loyalties, and he makes the nuance work beautifully. As for Clancy Brown and Daniel Wu, they perfectly deliver that larger-than-life sense of grandeur that the human side so painfully lacked.

Speaking of which, the filmmakers were smart enough not to make the humans Good and the orcs Evil or vice versa. As I said earlier, a significant part of the game’s appeal is in the players’ ability to choose their own race and decide for themselves who the good guys really are. Being able to choose a side is an indispensable aspect of the franchise, and preserving that by keeping both sides at least somewhat sympathetic was a very smart move. But it’s also kind of a lateral move, since we’re still left with cartoonishly evil bad guys and saintly heroes without much in the way of middle ground. We’ve got Kazinsky’s Orgrim and Patton’s half-breed Garona, both of whom side one way or another depending on the needs of the plot, but that’s about the extent of the film’s nuance.

The filmmakers were clearly trying to break the mold and bring something new to the table. And there are a few moments so shocking and genuinely surprising that they almost succeed. Alas, the film is stuck with a two-hour running time, and that’s not nearly long enough for a sprawling fantasy epic like this one. As such, the filmmakers have to rely on cliches and plot conveniences, rushing through exposition and story points, all to compress a three-hour-plus story into two hours of film. And even when the film is over, so many plot threads are left dangling that the whole movie still feels incomplete, not really begging for a sequel so much as outright demanding one. Hell, even “demanding” feels like too soft a word — this movie is flat-out telling us that the story isn’t even close to done and we’d better start rallying for a sequel if we ever want to see the next cliffhanger.

Like only the best adaptations can do, Warcraft succeeds at bringing its source material to vivid life in a way that could never be done in any other medium. And like the absolute worst adaptations, it gives the impression of something much more expansive and amazing that’s been painfully shoehorned into the limitations of another medium. Like the best CGI blockbusters, it uses state-of-the-art technology to bring us visceral action scenes and breathtaking visuals on an epic scale. And like the worst CGI blockbusters, the script and characters feel undercooked, resulting in so much empty spectacle that culminates in a cliffhanger for a sequel that may not actually resolve anything if it ever comes.

The film was very clearly made by people who adore Warcraft, and fans will likely enjoy it in that shared spirit. And the movie serves as proof that Duncan Jones can deliver a film of this size, even in spite of all the heartbreaking personal tragedies he endured (in full public view, no less) while the film was in production. That’s gotta mean great things for him moving forward, which is likely going to be great news for all of us. And of course, anyone who’s just in the mood for loud, flashy, brainless CGI will find a prime example here.

In summary, I’d say that this is one of those movies that definitely qualifies as “fun” even if it doesn’t qualify as “good.” And it certainly isn’t the landmark game-to-film adaptation we’ve all been waiting for. All eyes now turn to Assassin’s Creed this December, with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard under the direction of Justin Kurzel. Based on what these same talents did for Macbeth last year, I’m not exactly holding my breath.

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