Once upon a time, back in the 1990s, Blizzard Entertainment was riding high with their Warcraft series of real-time strategy video games. Eventually they wanted to make an adventure game out of Warcraft with compelling characters and a story that fit its fantasy world. They made it far through production and even promoted a trailer with finished hand-drawn animation. The trailer looked amazing, but Blizzard eventually decided that the game just wasn’t up to their standards and pulled the plug rather than release a lackluster product. That level of examination clearly wasn’t present with the 2016 Warcraft movie—what could very well be the Titanic of disastrous video game movies.
From that last sentence, I’m sure I’ve set off a few alarm bells in the Warcraft community. On what grounds does this writer feel the need to lambaste the first big screen adaptation of this legendary franchise? Has he even played the video games? Did he even read up on the Warcraft mythology? What does he even know about movies? He probably doesn’t even like fantasy and only likes those boring art-house films. Since I’ve already read plenty of reviews where comments call out movie reviewers as inept for their lack of Warcraft knowledge—most of which is calling out how they don’t know the difference between Warcraft and World of Warcraft—let me reserve the positive portion of this review for the Warcraft fans.
If you just want to see a bunch of orcs and humans battle it out on screen, story and acting be damned, then this is your movie. There are plenty of epic fight scenes where hordes of orcs lay waste to squadrons of humans, battling one another with all manner of weaponry. It’s all very brutal and dark; the way this war is portrayed is completely devoid of any levity characters or corny comedy. The orcs look pretty neat and the violence is surprisingly bloody. Various locations from the game are showcased in the story.
If nothing can deter you from loving the movie on these merits, you already know that Warcraft on the big screen is for you. Of course, that is part of the appeal—the Warcraft movie is made for the fans specifically in mind, refusing to cater to those coming in cold. You can close this review right now and head on out to the theater if you want to watch a movie that finally gives the gamers what they want.
Still reading? Then you’re most likely not a Warcraft fan and probably curious whether the movie is still good enough for a non-fan. Not only is this movie confusing for those not already invested in Warcraft lore, but it’s not very inviting either. Considering I haven’t touched a Warcraft game since the 1990s, I didn’t have much prior knowledge coming into this picture. Most of what I remember from the story of the original video games was from cut scenes I skipped over, more eager to pit orcs against humans than learn about their story. My hope with the Warcraft movie was that it would give me a reason to care about this world. I didn’t expect it to divulge all the history, races, and magical spells of Warcraft, but I was hoping it would at least give me some interesting characters to care about or an intriguing plot worth following. Even with these low expectations, I was severely let down.
In this war of humans versus orcs, the script centers on too many characters slathered in fantasy cliches. I’m sure they were meant to represent more, but in the limited amount of screen time each character has, they can do little more than spout the very basics of their archetypes. Durotan is the runt of the Orc chiefs who can see the writing on the wall that their race is being led to a disaster by a malicious dictator of an Orc wizard. He fears for the safety and future of his newly born son that he wants to cut a secret deal with the humans to overthrow his leader. Though Durotan’s plight mostly involves him looking mopey as he wanders around battlefields, he’s by far the most interesting character of the movie. Surprisingly, he’s also the most human-feeling, for being a CGI orc. That may sound like praise, but it’s easy to feel for an orc when all the human characters are wooden by comparison.
More money seemingly went into making sure Warcraft‘s orcs act as orcs than the humans act as humans. The majority of the actors seem to be sleepwalking through the roles, the way they spout exposition and bland dialogue, as if they are taking the material more seriously than it should be. All the actors are so stone-faced in their scenes that the few moments of levity do little else but come off as awkwardly terrible. I originally saw this movie in a theater of Warcraft fans all hopped up and hooting for the release. They were incredibly silent during the moments of “humor” with the exception of one or two pity laughs. Some of the film’s casting was even a bit baffling; Dominic Cooper doesn’t bring much to the role of a king and Ben Foster appears more as a dorky stoner than an all-powerful wizard.
The movie is moves at a frenetic pace that you’re never given a moment to know these characters all that well or even appreciate their world. The kingdom of Stormwind looks decent from the exterior establishing shots, but most of the movie locks the viewer away in Stormwind’s plastic-looking throne room, war room, and dungeon. Why can’t we see more of the culture and people that reside in Stormwind? You know—actually get a sense of what’s worth protecting in this war? Several locations seem wasted for the quickest of scenes. Enjoy that thirty seconds you get to see of the impressive Ironforge because you won’t see it again.
But what about the fight scenes? Isn’t that the big draw for Warcraft instead of all this acting and pacing I keep bitching about? Sure, the first few encounters with the Orcs and humans are cool. But then you get another fight scene and another and another, each one quickly running out of tricks. By the time the movie reaches its grand climax of a massive battle sequence, I was so numb to the scale and detail of these fights that I found myself actually bored. You can only watch orcs smash humans into the ground so many times before it means nothing.
If nothing else, I was hoping that Warcraft could at least deliver on a scale of adventure or wonder. There is a common threat of a dark orc and I wanted to see the humans and good orcs topple that tyrant. But, no, the movie instead decides to leave this plot thread hanging as it does with the majority of the plots in its script. Is that really how you want a fantasy picture to end—not with a triumph, but an awkward stalemate? I would give the movie credit for taking such a dark path, but the darkness just piles on to the point of being so murky that there’s nothing worth caring about.
If this really is to be the start of a franchise, it certainly didn’t leave me pumped for the sequel. In fact, it didn’t leave me with much of anything given the way the story just stops as if the effects budget had reached its limit.
Most of the defense I’ve heard for the movie is the usual rationalizations of “it’s not that bad” or “it’s not the greatest movie ever” or “what did you expect?” Considering the movie was written and directed by Duncan Jones, the highly skilled mind behind Moon and Source Code, I really did expect more. I thought that if anyone could make the overly dense world of Warcraft into an entertaining and engaging experience for an audience that knows nothing about the games, it would be him. Unfortunately, Jones seems to have left us non-fans behind to play a big theatrical game of Warcraft with the franchise’s legions of devoted gamers. As for those of us who didn’t study the rule book or have never played the game before, he ignores our confusion in order to impress the Warcraft community with his visuals skills and comprehensive knowledge of the material.
The characters are cliché, the actors are terrible, the fight scenes are monotonous, the pace is spotty at best, and the script is just a downer of an unfulfilled story. But apparently all that means nothing so long as Warcraft can show off how cool orcs look in the theater.