A lapsed Warcraft fan and a complete Warcraft newbie walk into a cinema, to watch the new Warcraft movie. If you've read any other reviews you'll probably guess what happened next. If you're not a hardcore fan of the series, able to forgive more than a few flaws, you'll probably be either a little bit confused or a little bit disappointed.
Warning: spoilers within!
NB: Chris Jager, editor of Lifehacker, and Campbell Simpson, editor of Gizmodo, aren't hardcore Warcraft fans — most importantly, they haven't played World of Warcraft. If you have played WoW a lot and you're a fan of the series, remember your experience is probably different to the majority of cinema-goers that might see the film. And, of course, feel free to share your own thoughts about the film in the comments below. Thanks!
CJ: So I went into this movie not knowing much about Warcraft. My exposure to the property has mainly been through half-read game reviews, gushing testimonials from WoW-playing buddies (which I've clearly ignored) and that massively overrated South Park episode from ten years ago.
In other words, I wasn't an invested, die-hard fan. On the one hand, this means my expectations weren't impossibly high but it also meant all the in-jokes and Easter eggs were completely lost on me.
Cam, you've had a bit more experience with the Warcraft mythos, particularly the older strategy war game titles. What did you make of the movie?
CS: I went into Warcraft having played and loved all the RTS games — from the original Warcraft in 1994 to the Frozen Throne expansion for WC3 a decade later. I never really got into WoW, but I've mucked around a bit in Hearthstone too. So I knew the bulk of the history at one point in time.
I'll freely admit that I'm a bit out of touch with the universe from not being a WoW fan, but I remembered the backstory — and it's worth mentioning that Warcraft is an origin story itself. It's act one in what is meant to be a multi-act play, with characters that any player should know and love.
The movie is pretty much tailored to that in-crowd, though. There were plenty of moments where I didn't really know what was going on, and that's with my existing memory of the series already onboard. I can see why anyone with zero background knowledge would struggle to understand the backstory, which makes following a slightly convoluted movie even more difficult.
I really feel like Warcraft didn't know exactly what it wanted to be. Is it a Lord of the Rings fantasy epic? Is it a bit of a comedic poke at the Warcraft world? Is it something in between? You're a fantasy movie nerd, even if you're not a Warcraft nerd — what did you think it was?
CJ: It was basically two-plus hours of underdeveloped characters whaling on each other for reasons that weren't always apparent.
From the very beginning, the film throws the viewer into the action without properly explaining who any of these characters are or why we should care.
This is especially apparent on the Alliance side. Lines like: "Your majesty, we must summon the Guardian at haste!" serve as character introductions. This is just poor storytelling.
The first act is literally "humans react to orc attack". We don't get to know these guys before the action starts, which is very problematic: everything from their personalities to their actual role in the kingdom feels rushed and improvised.
This is something Lord Of The Rings did well - we spent a good twenty minutes hanging in Hobbiton with Frodo and the gang before the shit hits the fan. In Warcraft, there are no quiet moments before the storm.
Okay, so let's treat it as a straight war film with no room for character development. Even then, it fails pretty badly. We're never shown the orcs attacking villages in detail, so the stakes feel incredibly low.
Again, this is something Lord Of The Rings did well: by briefly focusing on a few fleeing peasants and their weepy, armour-clad sprogs, you really felt engaged in the fates of the humans. Warcraft has none of that. It's just a bunch of lords in castles arguing about the need to respond to the invasion. Ho-hum.
I suppose we should talk about the effects, which is a big reason to see a movie like this. What did you think Cam?
CS: I thought the character development was OK, in terms of them becoming more fleshed out and real, but it started from a very abrupt point. Like, hey here's the king and he's a bit pretentious and self-assured, and hey here's this other guy and he's apparently a famous knight who is also self-assured? You knew who the characters were by the end, but you didn't get much of it at the start.
Even with my memory of the games, I had no idea who the Guardian was. When we were introduced to him, I genuinely thought that the golem was the Guardian for a second. I also thought the movie's treatment of magic was really lightweight — it just suddenly entered the piece that a couple of guys could throw blue and orange stuff at orcs, and teleport around and occasionally get tired.
I think there wasn't enough exposition during, really. There was that RTS-style pan over some burning villages, but not enough of that middle-ground where you see individual people getting captured and killed.
But the effects were fantastic, I thought. The CGI of the orcs — including Durotan's close up — is some of the best I've seen, and the blend of live action and CGI was great. The costumes, too, were almost LOTR-grade in how true to the games they were and how realistic they looked. I think that's probably where Warcraft is strongest; if you treat it like Avatar, as a technical demonstration with a bit of cinema attached, it holds up well.
CJ: Yeah, all the orc stuff was the best part of the movie. I get they needed to focus on both Horde and Alliance to appease fans of the series, but did the human characters have to be so boring? The principle cast ranged from annoying to entirely forgettable - hell, even Travis Fimmel's maxed-out charisma couldn't save his character.
By contrast, I found the orc characters really interesting (even if it wasn't always obvious why different factions were fighting each other.) The orc plot line also contained some genuine surprises. For example, in the beginning of the movie the main character's pregnant wife unexpectedly goes into labour while travelling between dimensions. This seems like a classic tragedy/revenge setup via disposable characters. Instead, she successfully gives birth unscathed. This expectation-dodging happened several times during the movie and it made the orc characters more compelling.
The same can't be said of the Alliance unfortunately: their motivations and ultimate fates are pretty predictable from the start.
In conclusion, I think there were enough elements in Warcraft to make a pretty good movie. But something went awry in the execution. It didn't do a very good job of explaining itself which made it difficult to care about what was happening.
Having said that, I'll give it props for keeping the "franchise building" to a minimum. Unlike most modern superhero and fantasy films, it was content to tell a self-contained story. It just happened to be a confusing and inaccessible one.
CS: There were a few orc storylines that Warcraft really missed out on exploring, which is strange because the movie felt long. Why were the Frostwolf clan slightly lighter in colour than the greenskin orcs? Why was Garona a half-breed — she looked very human, but I thought there were no humans in the Orc realm?
Let's hope those are explained a little more in the next movie, if one eventually happens. I think we're agreed that somewhere in the world, and somewhere throughout the two-hour film, Warcraft had some great ideas that just needed to be made a little clearer. All it needed was some more world-building.
I agree that the (mostly) self-contained plot of the movie was good. But there were a few ways that it could have been more fleshed out, without leaving threads hanging, that would have made it more enjoyable to watch. With that said, with all Warcraft's minor flaws, I'm looking forward to where the series goes.
It took a while for the game series to hit its stride — the one with the fondest place in my memory is Warcraft 3: Reign of Chaos, which came out eight years after the original. I don't think we should judge the movie too harshly; we should see it as a pretty reasonable first act in a longer saga.
CJ: Except it failed to make us care about any of the characters. If the sequel picks up directly after the first one, you can count me out. The further adventures of Wimpy Magic Guy, Fantasy Gamora and Aragorn (With Swagger) is something I have zero interest in.
I also feel like the other races in Warcraft got serious short thrift. The dwarves and elves were little more than extras and the other races didn't make a single appearance. How much cooler would it have been if the Alliance formed a Dirty Dozen-style fighting force comprising all the major races? That would have been way more interesting than the feckless troupe of white dudes we got.
If Warcraft manages to make enough bucks for a sequel, they should skip ahead a generation or so. And add some of those panda guys.
Have you seen Warcraft? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below.