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The RPG Scrollbars: Warcraft

The thin blue Llane

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The Warcraft movie hasn’t exactly been drowning in plaudits after its premiere… to which I wasn’t invited, so I’m typing this in a Frankie and Benny’s immediately after my local cinema’s first non-midnight screening because hahahaha, no. That’s how devoted I am to timeliness: a bit! But, as a long-time player of World of Warcraft who actually plays for stuff like the story and the PvE content, I still held out hope. If it simply wasn’t for others, as the mood seemed, might it be for me?

Answers as soon as I order this burger. Bacon, lettuce, no cheese…

So, I liked the movie. I liked the movie a lot. But I can see exactly why a lot of people didn’t, and it really is the dividing line between ‘good movie’ and, well, ‘movie I liked’. In addition to having played a lot of World of Warcraft, I’ve seen almost every game-to-movie conversion, and this one is light-years ahead of basically all of them for one simple reason – it wants to exist. Generally, movies based on games are ashamed of their source material and do their best to get away from it as fast as humanly possible. There’s a couple of exceptions, like Tomb Raider, Mortal Kombat and Silent Hill, to various degrees of success, but they’re dwarfed by how often someone looks at the likes of Hitman and goes “But what if he had a girlfriend?

The Warcraft movie is made of love. It drips from every frame. Every background. Every piece of armour. Every little detail in every scene. This movie simply couldn’t have been made without that fastidious attention and drive to recreate this world to the absolute edge of what the budget can do. There’s a few tweaks here and there to lore, like Khadgar no longer being Medivh’s apprentice, and the orc who will be Thrall getting the full-on Moses treatment far earlier than originally. Garona’s backstory is the most changed, now completely redone and simplified to make her more sympathetic. Overall though, they’re very small, don’t change the big picture much, and are visibly in the service of telling the story rather than just casually rewriting established lore.

Most importantly, it finds a middle-ground between the two factions early on, with very little forced drama or frustrating misunderstandings to carry the story… occasionally to the point that it starts feeling unrealistic just how damn reasonable everybody is and that all of this is actually going to lead to great wars instead of just one big skirmish, a polite meeting, and maybe the parcelling out of a little bit of land somewhere. I hear Mount Hyjal is quite pleasant this time of year. The humans of Stormwind are peaceful, respectful, willing to hear anyone out, and capable of putting the blame where it belongs, even when flaring up in anger. On the orc-side, Durotan especially is shown as honourable to a fault, and the whole Horde torn between its old ideals and Gul’dan’s new wave of destructive Fel magic corrupting both their traditions and their future. Both sides though are treated as smart, worthy adversaries, whether it’s the humans working out tactics or the Frostwolves trying to handle warband politics.

Occasionally, they even get too smart for the movie itself, coming up with a plan so effective that the next scene has to quickly pretend that never happened. Doomhammer talking Gul’dan out of making the Frostwolves go green through Fel magic? Uh. Look over there! Did you see the flying monkey!? Then, later: Humiliate him in front of his army to turn all the orcs against him? Great plan, and- oh, look, the flying monkey’s back! And he brought one of the movie’s suspiciously sharp edit-cuts!

But those are details. For the most part, this is a beautifully made, lovingly produced conversion. It’s one of the few that do its source material honour, it tells the story as the creators wrote it without being so stuck to the details that it can’t work as a film, while keeping things simple enough that, bar a bit of difficulty telling orcs apart at times, new audiences shouldn’t find it hard to follow.

So… uh… what went wrong?

It’s tough to put my finger on it, but at heart… it’s not a fun movie. It’s so self-important, so po-faced, so desperate to be worthy. At times… and by god, do not mistake this for a comment on its quality… it made me think of the movie version of Battlefield Earth, and its quivering terror at being seen as ‘squirreling’ the original source. The Passion Of The Christ would tell Warcraft: The Beginning to maybe chill out a little. Throw in a few more character scenes. Establish some proper chemistry in a bit of downtime.

But no. Everyone in this movie is there to be a dramatic puzzle piece first, a character second. With very few exceptions, Khadgar and Lothar ultimately working out what movie they’re in, there’s no sense of camaraderie, no humour, no banter. This might fit Warcraft, but let’s face it, this is a World of Warcraft movie, and the World of Warcraft is a fairly goofy place. I’m not saying that it should have been about an adventuring party cracking wise and cracking skulls, or god forbid, have had a comic relief character. But there’s a reason why comic relief is called ‘relief’, especially in a long movie. A few gnome airships, a bit more friendship, or taking the stick out of Dominic Cooper’s ass and making King Llane Wrynn be someone with the charisma to lead a doomed empire back from the brink of destruction might have made all the difference.

What makes it all the more noticeable is that as much as the movie deeply cares about depicting this first great battle between orcs and humans, it offers very little reason for the average viewer to. We see lots of Azeroth from establishing shots, but really nothing of the orc campaign up close. We’re given no sense of a great culture about to take it in the face for the next few years. Aside from one dwarf shown in the intro to set up a Chekhov’s gun (that, like a lot of what gets set up, never really fires) and the occasional shot of a Night Elf or whatever around a table, the entire of Azeroth is represented by basically five humans. Who cares? I’ve played this series since the 90s, and I was struggling to give a damn as everyone beamed around, fighting an inherently losing battle with no care for establishing things like geography or scale.

Instead, for much of it I was pondering how well Marvel has done at not simply making movies of its properties, but bringing people into its crazily complex world. In particular, Guardians of the Galaxy. Again, I’m not saying that should have been the template; that the movie needed wise-cracks and banter and so on. But what it did desperately need was that sense of friendship, of pushing against impossible odds, of presenting the Warcraft universe as not simply a place of deep lore, but a wonderous place where magic and adventure can happen. Or, alternatively, consider The Hobbit – a story that allows everyone to dip their toes into Middle Earth before diving into Lord of the Rings.

You need a connection to a world before you can truly care about it. Warcraft just assumes one, and while it gets the nature of the place very well, it’s too cold to give that familiarity any real emotional resonance. Seeing Stormwind on the big screen should be amazing. The Dark Portal. Ironforge. Karazhan. Westfall. And for a moment, in those establishing shots, it is. But then, we’re done. They’re just places; backgrounds rather than settings, and those narrative pieces pretending to be characters visibly composited on top rather than seeming to be living, breathing places. Moreover, they’re places that don’t appreciate the reasons that they’re so beloved – the warmth of the Forge, the craziness of Karazhan, and the memories and meaning that players have instilled into them over the years, rather than their place in the lore.

But again, for all its flaws, I don’t think it’s a bad movie. It’s a good movie, let down by its own desire to be a tribute to Warcraft first, a fun fantasy flick second. I really wish it had found a more personal story to focus on, that it had had the solid emotional tent-peg of an Arthas or a Thrall, where the big dilemmas could come from inside, and personal strengths/weaknesses rather than outright fantasy guff like Fel magic. The Beginning makes sense as the start of a new franchise, and it’s 80% the way to being the long awaited Truly Great Game To Movie Conversion. But if there’s to be only one Warcraft movie… and given its reception, that seems likely… it’s a shame it had to be this one. Still, it’s okay. Not great, but far from cinematic disaster, and for all its flaws, still one of the best conversions yet. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.

Now read Pip’s take as a person mildly familiar with Warcraft lore.

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