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Wot I Think: Warcraft: The Beginning

It's hard to feel anything towards it.

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When it comes to the Warcraft movie I have a foot in both the insider and outsider camps of viewership. I haven’t seriously played a Warcraft game in over ten years and it was never a key part of my own life but I do write about the franchise and hold on to memories of some of the main characters’ comings and goings as well as knowing what it meant to friends. That’s the vantage point from which I’m writing this review.

The movie begins with the incursion of orcs into Azeroth through the Dark Portal setting up for a conflict between the Horde and the current inhabitants of Azeroth, although the movie focuses almost exclusively on the humans.

Within the orc faction we find tensions: awful, power-hungry necromancer Gul’dan has been rubbing Durotan, chieftain of the Frostwolves, up the wrong way because his constant use of fel magic is destructive and Durotan isn’t an idiot. On the Alliance side of the equation you have the king, Llane Wrynn (whose name I kept forgetting so I just thought of him as King Dominic Cooper), sorcerer Medivh and Anduin Lothar as a kind of power triad – regal, magical, warrior. There’s also Khadgar played by Ben Schnetzer – an up and coming rebel wizard prodigy.

Bridging the gap between Horde and Alliance is Paula Patton’s Garona. She’s only half orc and looks a lot closer to human, just with some prosthetic dentistry and greener skin. She also speaks the languages of both sides and acts as a translator at one point as well as forging relationships on either side.

Watching the movie I was struck by how “videogames” it was. With Warcraft I’ve felt that the lore side of the games was this space where characters didn’t really have much depth but they did do a lot of things. It became an exercise in remembering whether a particular character was evil or good at a particular moment in time and what the purpose of that was in terms of moving the plot along. To me it’s dense rather than deep, the characters getting a lot of things done but never really becoming nuanced or complex beyond narratively useful “personally conflicted” moments. Warcraft tends towards tropes and broad strokes and a kind of earnest, busy storytelling that I associate with sagas and soap operas rather than novels and cinema.

That’s not a criticism per se. But where that style can work in the games, padded by missions and activity, it was jarring to see it happening similarly onscreen. The end result for me was this middling experience. Not bad, not good. I wasn’t bored in watching it because it was cramming so much in – plot beat followed plot beat so the earnestness didn’t get a chance to collapse the whole thing under a ponderous weight. But it was also just this string of stuff happening – lots of sequences designed to be 3D “wow” moments, then more plot beats and no-one ever really had a chance to develop a motive or a nuance.

As an example, there’s a love plotline that you can see signposted a mile off, but its development feels more like the characters are hitting certain benchmarks as designated in the Big Book Of How Romance Between Feisty Ladies And Warrior Dudes Must Unfold. There’s a disconnect between the action as dictated by the pace of the plot and where you’d expect the characters to be emotionally at that point.

That approach made it really difficult to develop any emotional attachment to the movie. King Dominic Cooper seemed like a decent chap but I didn’t develop any feelings stronger than that over the course of the film. Lothar was in the Aragorn mould of stubbly fighty leadership but the substance of the latter was missing as was any depth to his familial relationships. And so it continued across most of the cast – I don’t think the script allowed room for anything to actually play out properly.

I mean, put it this way, I’m a cry-er. I cry at acts of heroism, at shameless emotional manipulation, at happy moments, at deaths, at Celine Dion winning a lifetime achievement award at the Billboard Music Awards. If there’s an emotion to be had in a thing I will find it. I meet emotional moments a lot further than halfway and I didn’t feel anything towards this movie. Except maybe some frustration because I never find that 3D screenings are in focus when things are moving fast.

Oh, also there were some laugh-out-loud moments but I’m fairly sure they weren’t the ones I was supposed to be laughing at. Those were the signposted bants which my brain registered as “you just did a bant”. The ones I giggled at were moments of over-earnest fantasy absurdity. I mean, it’s an over-earnest fantasy story so I wasn’t expecting nuance or anything, but, goodness, it was like watching a slew of cutscenes and sometimes it did tip over into ridiculousness for me.

On the positive side, it felt like they got Gul’dan spot on. From his basic look to his mannerisms and his actions. At one point he’s having a clifftop chat near the Portal-in-progress and he’s just casually supping on the life force of some shackled prisoner like an emperor nibbling on grapes.

I’m not sure what Warcraft aficionados will make of it. Director Duncan Jones has been retweeting a lot of praise from Warcraft fans who think it’s spot on and were super excited, and I did find myself having occasional moments of pleasure through recognition – a murloc gurgle, a polymorph jibe, the swoop of a gryphon mount heading out from Stormwind – all of which are linked to enjoyable moments/experiences with the games rather than being intrinsic to the movie.

But for someone on the fringes of the franchise like me it felt like a lore info-dump – a dramatic reconstruction of a WoWWiki entry. I couldn’t keep track of a whole bunch of the similar-sounding names and I had moments where I couldn’t remember Garona’s origins so I spent most of the thing wondering why she was half-human given this is the first time the humans have heard of an orc (she’s actually half-draenei).

I didn’t think the movie was a stinker, but I didn’t think it was interesting or memorable either. Without being steeped in the fandom/lore I didn’t find anyone to invest in or to root for. So, just as I find with the Warcraft games, the film swiftly became about swinging from plot development to plot development until the credits rolled.

Warcraft: The Beginning is out May 30th in the UK, June 10th in the US.

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Philippa Warr

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