Warcraft director Duncan Jones has done a hell of a job condensing the lore of one of the most beloved video games into two-hours of solid big screen viewing.
That he managed to please Universal and Blizzard Entertainment, not to mentioned the clamouring, diehard fans of the Warcraft franchise, is testament to Warcraft’s inevitable claim to cult status.
Its critical standing puts it firmly near the bottom of game-to-film adaptations, but there’s far more going on in the world of Azeroth than many of the more damning critics care to acknowledge, or perhaps bother to search for.
I went into Warcraft expecting it to be the colossal failure that so many early reviews have claimed it to be. As someone not at all engaged with Warcraft lore, I also expected to be lost in the fantastical drive of a universe that is so passionately adored by millions across the globe.
Yet I found myself leaning forward in my seat, head resting on clenched fists, as I watched a strangely emotional battle emerge between humans and Orcs. When the credits for Warcraft started to roll, I already had my phone out to learn a little more about the world of Warcraft, and when, if at all, a sequel was coming out.
Warcraft made me feel more involved with its video game source material than any film adaptation had done in the past. That makes it a success.
It does a fantastic job of staying within the world of Warcraft
Within only a matter of seconds, it’s clear that Warcraft is a technical marvel. Groundbreaking facial performances using the latest capture techniques have created stunning Orcs that nail the emotional plight of the character dilemmas.
Yet where so many movies fail in the field of CGI performance, Warcraft succeeds. The Orcs, and specifically Durotan, a chieftain who wants nothing more than for his people to live prosperously and safely, are designed with cartoony purity that is true to Blizzard’s own representation of the ghastly beasts from another dimension. Director Duncan Jones has stayed true to this design, superbly balancing relatable conflicts of family with the fantastical elements that define the Warcraft experience.
At times you’ll see Durotan casually and playfully teasing his pregnant partner, and it’s a refreshing break away from the brutal nature of the Orcs’ tribal warfare. They look terrifying, certainly of another world. Yet Jones has managed to tell a Warcraft story by humanising both sides of the conflict, even if one side looks so aesthetically outrageous. It’s a movie based on a video game, but it gets away with it by expanding upon and humanising one specific side of the conflict that we might otherwise ignore.
It’s ballsy and takes few shortcuts to tell a story
I won’t lie: within 15 minutes, I was like a lost puppy. Who the hell is Medivh? What is this green magic stuff? Why are the Orcs flying through…space? Understandably, these are stupidly funny questions to ask a Warcraft fan immersed in the lore, but for the casual movie goer I think they’re completely legitimate questions. That’s because Jones’ script just doesn’t care about making Warcraft accessible for the masses. That makes it ballsy as hell.
Primary antagonist Gul’dan’s motives are never truly explained, but that doesn’t matter: he’s all-powerful, brutally honest and terrifyingly devastating. The Orcs follow him mindlessly, which builds him up to be a near-indestructible character. The human characters are introduced in similarly vague circumstances, but it doesn’t matter because the film makes it clear who we should care for and who we shouldn’t. Major plot points around half-way through start to piece together a lot of the “You Should Already Know This, Anyway” elements from the first 15 minutes, but by that stage I was so engulfed by Durotan and his tribal dilemma that it wouldn’t have mattered if I couldn’t follow the story anyway.
The biggest risk Jones takes with Warcraft is that it openly embraces the Orcs as the film’s quasi-anti-heroes (don’t worry, no spoilers). Warcraft actively asks us to choose a side, and the woodenness of the human characters seems almost conveniently purposeful, pushing us to root for Durotan, a character who questions the moral motives of Gul’dan. Few genre films give so much screen time and plot relevance to its primary antagonists, and Warcraft does it with intimidating confidence.
Ben Foster as Medivh and Toby Kebbell as Durotan is casting done right
Jake Gyllenhaal as Prince of Persia. Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft. tMark Wahlberg as Max Payne. The list of miscasting in game-to-film adaptations goes on and on. Warcraft is in that list, with wooden human characters across the board, but Foster as The Guardian and Kebbell as Durotan are fantastic in their roles. Kebbell’s portrayal as Durotan, an Orc of honor, is particular is engrossing and powerful: I loved every moment his character was on screen.
No game’s transition to the big screen has nailed the casting of primary characters quite like Warcraft has with these two. It’s a shame that the script’s limitations made Travis Fimmel’s Anduin and Paula Patton’s Garona too wooden to care about, but the development here is saved by Foster’s and Kebbell’s performances, particularly Foster’s, who turns shallow dialogue into powerful interactions with other characters.
It condenses lore into relatable social issues
Warcraft balances confronting social issues that many of us can relate to. Fatherhood is a prominent theme, with Durotan juggling the life of his son with his commitment to the tribe, while Lothar’s relationship with his son is subtly representative of modern-day challenges of being a single parent. Warcraft also touches upon refugee issues, which leads into conflict among the humans and how they will respond to the Orc threat. Similarly, the Orcs face challenging dilemmas in dealing with their own internal conflicts while trying to find and establish a new home.
Warcraft’s attempt to cover these themes isn’t particularly deep, but they’re there, and they present interesting challenges for the audience in understanding the motives of both sides of the conflict.
There’s a strange human touch here, as Warcraft humanises its most fantastical characters in a way no other game-to-film adaptation has. That makes it strangely enjoyable.
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