When most students finish university, they celebrate by taking their friends out for dinner, a drink or throwing a house/flat party to end them all. Most of my friends left as soon as they finished, and I hate flat parties with a vengeance, so I marked the occasion by treating myself to two cinema trips. The first time, I re-watched Disney’s remake of The Jungle Book; the second, I watched something new. That “something new” was Warcraft, Duncan Jones’ take on the long-running game franchise by Blizzard Entertainment. Films based on video games have had a bad reputation ever since the Mario Bros. leaped onto the big screen in 1993, but Warcraft aims to change all that with an all-star cast, a huge budget and - most importantly - the games’ creators at its back. Today I’m going to tell you, as a newbie, if it’s worth the two-hour trip.
Taking its cue from the first game, Warcraft (or Warcraft: The Beginning as it’s marketed in Europe) tells the beginning of the age-long war between humans and orcs. However, unlike your typical fantasy film, it opens from the viewpoint of the orcs - specifically Durotan (played by Toby Kebbell), chieftain of the Frostwolf clan. With his home world dying, and his wife about to give birth, Durotan reluctantly joins Gul’dan (Daniel Wu), a warlock, in travelling to the new world Azeroth. Durotan wants nothing more than to make a new life for his people, but Gul’dan plans to take it by force through his soul-sucking magic, the fel. This sparks conflict not only with themselves, but with the humans fighting to protect their home: Commander Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), his brother-in-law King Llane (Dominic Cooper) and novice mage Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer). While the orcs ready to conquer Azeroth, Lothar is forced to turn to Medivh, the reclusive Guardian (Ben Foster), and half-orc Garona (Paula Patton) for help. Of course, things don’t go according to plan and the actions of both Lothar and Durotan pave the way for the war to come.
The Warcraft games have been around since 1994, and since then we’ve had, to my knowledge, four main games (including the famous World of Warcraft), eight expansion packs and a heck of a lot of books. I’d never touched any of them before I saw the film, but I know it’s a huge amount of material to adapt - too much for a single two-hour film to cover all at once. Fortunately, new director Duncan Jones took on the project with the help of Chris Metzen, Blizzard’s Snr. Vice President of Story Development, and chose to adapt the story of the first game, adding elements of later instalments wherever they could. Few adaptations can boast of having the games’ creators involved, but Blizzard’s involvement is literally clear from the word go (thanks to their logo in the title sequence) - and for the most part, it pays off. The film has the look and feel of the games, a lot of references to please the fans and, most importantly, deep characters on both sides of the conflict. However, the sheer number of them, coupled with the strict time limit, contribute to my one major issue with Warcraft: there wasn’t enough time for them all. The film shifts between so many characters, it doesn’t make time to establish them as Peter Jackson did in The Lord of the Rings. This means, inevitably, some characters (e.g. Durotan, Lothar and Garona) get more screen time than others (e.g. Khadgar and Llane). The film’s length also affects the pacing, leaving little time to get used to the world of Azeroth - in ten minutes we move from a long prologue on the orcs’ home world, to a brief introduction to Lothar in the dwarf city Ironforge, to the human capitol Stormwind where the humans’ side of the story begins. From there the film moves rapidly from one scene to the next, giving barely enough time to savour the sights while the story progresses. It feels like a three-hour film stuffed into two hours. It’s a shame because, otherwise, Warcraft is one of the best game adaptations I’ve seen in recent years. Few are given the budget, respect and creators’ involvement it received (B-movie director Uwe Boll wanted to direct the film, but Blizzard turned him down flat).
While most films based on video games have poor characters, bad acting and appalling CGI, Warcraft is the opposite; a must when dealing with the games’ main stars, the orcs. They are to Warcraft what dinosaurs are to Jurassic Park, and they don’t disappoint. The orcs were made with the same motion-capture technology as Avatar and The Hobbit, but despite their stylised appearance, they all act and feel more alive than the likes of Azog the Defiler. They have their own stories, goals and motivations which drive the story and fuel the conflict, as a human character’s would. Durotan, the Frostwolf chief, wants to live peacefully with humans for the sake of his wife and son; his second-in-command, Orgrim, wants to do what he feels is right for his people; Garona is torn between staying loyal to the orcs and helping Lothar protect Azeroth; and Gul’dan wants to use fel magic to conquer Azeroth and make a new home for the orcs. Their goals and methods are flawed (in the sense that people’s goals can be flawed in real life), but like us, they each set out with the best intentions in mind and deal with the consequences in their own ways. This often makes them more believable and interesting than the human characters. That said, Lothar, Llane and Medivh aren’t flat by any means - they, too, have stories and goals of their own which generate conflict for both the orcs and themselves. While he fights to protect the kingdom, Lothar struggles to maintain a relationship with his son; King Llane tries to keep his allies together while searching for a way to stop the orcs’ threat peacefully; and Medivh… let’s say he has his own agenda which spells trouble for Lothar and Khadgar. The human cast are never idle, but apart from Medivh, their character arcs aren’t as complicated as the orcs’ are. It doesn’t help that their lines are often cheesy and filled with clichés, e.g. “From light comes darkness, and from darkness comes light.” Because of this, and the film’s decision to open with Durotan and Gul’dan first, I became more invested in their journeys than I did with the humans. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself feeling the same way.
While the characters of Warcraft are hit-and-miss, there’s one aspect of the film that didn’t disappoint me: the visuals. A mixture of practical sets and CGI was used to bring Azeroth to life, and although Jones faced challenges taking a stylised fantasy world into live-action, there were very few moments when I was taken out of it. Locations, weapons and armour are all based on their counterparts in the games, but they strike a balance between being true to the games and feeling practical. This matters because, as fans know, weapons and armour in the games are huge; if actors wore them at full size, they wouldn’t be believable. The only thing that let me down were the shields used by Llane’s forces, which looked too ornate to be convincing. The CGI, however, fared better. The orcs, creatures and magic are all rendered digitally and, despite being stylised like in the games, they somehow manage to put the film’s practical effects to shame. It’s not an easy achievement when you have live actors fighting hundreds of giant CG orcs that look like they were pulled straight from the games. The film’s key locations - Draenor, Stormwind, Kharazan and the Black Morass - are also rendered with CGI, with practical sets used for interior shots. They’re beautifully made, but sadly, the film moves so quickly you won’t get to appreciate the effort put into them. When a scene starts in a new location, the most you’ll get is an establishing shot around two seconds long before the drama kicks off. Some won’t even give you that before the swords and hammers clash. It’s one of the few things both newcomers and fans will complain about. It’s a shame because, when the swords and hammers do clash, they don’t let up; the fight scenes are fast and brutal. As a newcomer to Warcraft, I was surprised by how violent they got. Many orcs and humans are killed through the course of the film, and the ways in which they go out are savage for a 12A rating. Humans are crushed and beaten while they’re down, and orcs are slashed and shot in gory detail. Anyone looking for violence won’t be disappointed, but if the film ran at a slower pace, it would’ve been more enjoyable. No matter how good a fight scene is, it only becomes great with a break long enough to let you rest before the next one. In Warcraft’s case, it feels like one dazzling fight after another. Fans and action filmgoers probably won’t mind, but anyone else may find it exhausting. I wouldn’t recommend it to families or the faint of heart.
It’s not every day you come across a game adaptation that’s even half-decent - if you’re a fan, or a newcomer willing to keep an open mind, you could do worse than give Warcraft: The Beginning a chance. It won’t be the film of the year, but it’s better than most others of its kind - and it may well be the best we get until Assassin’s Creed is released.
Are you a long-time fan of Warcraft? Are you planning to see the film with your warband or use it to draw new people into the games? Comment below and tell us what you think of the new film!