I was really not expecting much from Warcraft: The Beginning. Early reviews had not been very kind to the film and the trailers showed a film in which lots of cartoon CG characters fought against live action actors. Then, with this being the age of the colon, before anyone had even seen Warcraft: The Beginning, future Warcraft movies were already being teased which always feels a little bit arrogant. Like the movis is saying ‘this is just the beginning, just imagine what it will be like when it properly gets going’. All of this leads to the plain truth of course, that nobody has ever really made a great film out of a video game license. Video game adaptations has been a long list of bad to middling movies, Super Mario Brothers, Tomb Raider, Hitman, Max Payne, how ever many Resident Evil movies have been made… none have truly lived up to the potential of their original source material, which provides a interactive experience that is so different to the experience of watching a movie.
So I was really not expecting much from Warcraft. But there was always hope in the form of Duncan Jones, the movie’s director. Jones has established himself as a talented film maker specialising in cold hard science fiction. His debut film Moon is a modern masterpiece heavily influenced by 2001: A Space Odyssey. Jones’s second film Source Code applied the Groundhog Day formula to an action thriller giving us another reason to love Jake Gyllenhaal, like we needed anymore. Both films in their own way, adopt video game conventions into their design, the idea of respawning for example is heavily prevalent – dying only to live again. Jones’s reputation precedes him, but he is also an avid player of video games – thusly I approached Warcraft with a kind of vested interest, here is a film maker with clear film making chops approaching a medium he understands and a property he is passionate about. Could this be the movie that breaks the video game movie adaptation curse?
As with Xmen: Apocalypse, which also received fairly negative reviews upon release. I don’t really understand why everybody has been so down on Warcraft. As the movie got going, I wondered whether I was seeing a different version to everybody, it may not be a perfect movie nor even as good as Jones’s first two movies but there is a large dosage of visual splendour interlaced with surprisingly nuanced characters.
In fact, I’m perfectly convinced that Warcraft: The Beginning might just be the first genuinely good movie based on a video game.
As a series, Warcraft began life as a fantasy real time strategy game created by Blizzard studios in the early mid Nineties. It wasn’t until the release of World of Warcraft in 2004 that it became a bonafide cultural phenomena as the most successful massively multiplayer online role playing game or MMORPG as the genre is usually acronymed to. WoW had a vast expansive world populated by players from all over the world. Players would pick a character from the world’s many races and go about building their characters gaining in strength and new skills. The social dimension of Warcraft has turned it into a thing of legend, players could meet online, fight each other or team up in large raiding groups to tackle the game’s harder challenges. Alternatively they could just sit around in a bar and talk with their friends.
I myself never really got into World of Warcraft. I did try to get a free trial to see what all the fuss was about but found myself disliking the general progression of the many fetch quests and all the grinding involved to level up your character. Despite that, I remember being particularly impressed by the scope and scale of the game world, a vast playable space to explore with hundreds of other players just casually going about their business. You take your first steps out of the starter area having just got your basic armour and suddenly see dozens of other cooler looking players just standing around shooting the shit.
I remember in one particular session, I was running around an arid grassland hunting for orcs to kill from which I could collect their belts, which were the pre-requisite of the mission I was involved with. The enemies were tough and I was too underpowered to fight them all. But then I meet a halfing sitting serenely on the side of a hill next to his massive golem pet. The player new I was struggling and helped me on my way fighting the orcs. Via the game’s inbuilt chat messenger, I thanked the player for his assistance, and he wished me luck on my travels. It was just a small moment, but for once in these huge game worlds with their many levels and challenges, it was refreshing to have that human connection. Having being used to the hateful vitriol that came with playing COD or Halo online, there was a certain majesty to World of Warcraft.
Whilst that experience is quite unique to playing World of Warcraft, Duncan Jones seems to understand that behind the expansive lore surrounding the game and its world, it is this sense that all these characters are connected in some small way by real people sitting half way around the world behind another computer screen. As such, every character is important and has a story. Warcraft: The Beginning understands this very strongly and is the main reason why it won me over and why I think all the naysayers are wrong.
The movie begins strongly enough. We see a human knight facing off against an orc within an arid grassland. The two characters circle one another before charging to attack and it immediately feels like a nod to WoW’s famous PVP duels. The main plot of the film is concerned with defining the conflict between orc and man, or in Warcraft speak – the horde versus the alliance. The land in which the orc’s inhabit is dying, and so the green skins are forced to search for a new home in Azeroth which belongs to the humans. War chieftain Durotan (Toby Kebbel) is just one of many orcs leading his clan to war under the leadership of shaman Gul’Dan. From the start, Durotan’s plight is well understood, he has a child on the way but no home to settle in. War and conquest into foreign lands is the only way to forge a future for his family.
Unfortunately, the black magic the orc’s all powerful leader uses to open a portal from their world to the humans is the very thing that seems to be have a cataclysmic effect on their natural surroundings. As the humans, led by the king of Azeroth (Dominic Cooper), try to find someway to stop the orc menace, Durotan works to form an unlikely alliance with the humans to stop Gul’Dan from sucking the life out of the world.
This is environtmenally conscious plot is just the setup. Warcraft: The Beginning is stacked with characters. There are almost too many characters at first. On the human side you have your basic Aaragon type character – Lothar (Travis Fimmel), the kindly king of the land (Dominic Cooper), his queen (Ruth Negga), the wise but isolated sorcerer Medivh (Ben Foster) and the naive but plucky young mage in training Kadghar (Ben Schnetzer). On the orc side there is Durotan (Toby Kebbel), his right hand man Orgrim (Robert Krazinsky), evil sorceror Gul’Dan (Daniel Wu) and his right hand man Blackhand (Clancy Brown). Then you have the half human, half orc Garona (Paula Patton) who is chained up by Gul’Dan as a kind of slave treated as as an impurely bred abomination – but yet just so happens to be the ‘hot orc’ of the picture.
During the first twenty minutes, the movie possess an extreme forward momentum. There is rarely a chance to breathe. The transitions between scenes happen thick and fast, with exposition leading characters off screen just as the slide transition goes into the next scene. Names, places and concepts are introduced to the story and come thick and fast. Being largely ignorant of the lore of the games, I assumed that all this probably made more sense to the fans of the game and began wondering whether this movie was being made exclusively for those people. Fortunately, the movie does begin to fall into place and I did find myself getting caught up in the story and the plight of each of the characters.
The real strength of the movie comes from the orc side. The orcs themselves are fantastically rendered and set a new precedent for computer generated characters that are capable of such subtlety and nuance in displaying emotion. For characters like Durotan, there was a level of dramatic weight that I really wasn’t expecting. From the start, you understand Durtotan’s predicament, he wants to do right by his people and his new family, yet he is conflicted because he realises that the methods of his leaders are cursed and essentially the root of all evil that ultimately conspires against all living things.
The human characters by comparison felt less established than the orcs, with most having a lighter swashbucking feel to them. I didn’t get a real sense of character for each of the characters beyond their archetypes. Here is Lothar, your Aaragon styled rogue, who is very handy with a sword. Here is your apprentice mage, naive and nervous, who grows his skill and understanding as the story progresses. In most instances the human characters just felt like quip machines. However, they did begin to grow on me, and they did have some cool lines. During a particular battle, Lothar gives the mage some advice for fighting orcs – “You’ll never better them in strength, be smarter”. I feel it’s spelling out the mantra for the film itself or at least the way in which the movie carries itself.
The movie goes to great lengths to replicate the look of the games, in which players select and build their own fantasy avatars, have the habit of feeling slightly unreal and cartoony. I can’t help but feel that the movie would have benefited from an all CG animated approach. With their own video game licenses Blizzard have excelled in creating their own cinematics and I couldn’t help but feel a Pixar approach may have been better employed. In some ways the live action elements are a little jarring when juxtaposed next to all the CG elements.The orcs themselves look fantastic, and yet Garona is essentially the actress Paula Patton painted green and given a set of prominent fangs on her lower jaw. Which does feel a little silly in places. She is supposed to be this character of conflict between the two races, but most of the male cast are immediately accepting of her simply because they have the hots for her.
With that said, the world itself is rendered beautifully, I recognised a lot of locations from my brief time with the free trial and it was clear they were made by a passionate film crew. It is a very colourful movie with so many interesting visual elements, from the way in which magic spells have a kind of wind up before they are unleashed, to all the myriad creatures that populate the world. This really puts the world into warcraft, it feels like a living breathing place that routinely dazzles as the film progresses. It may never hold a candle to the usage of New Zealand as Middle Earth in Peter Jackson’s movies, but the CG wizardry has that critical element of tangibility which was so lacking in the rolling action scenes from the more recent Hobbit movies.
Then there are all the little details here and there. In a fit of rage, the big bad is seen to throw a cage full of living people off his battlements. We hear their screams as they topple over the edge. The next shot is from far away, as the human army advances declaring their next step. In the backdrop, you see the same cage of people falling and crumpling upon the ground. It’s not overly violent and in your face but the effect is there, in amidst all the battles and fighting there is still that tangibility of the cost of life in this world. Similarly, see how Gul’Dan harrowingly drains beings of their very life and soul to power his own selfish magical needs, it’s a very simple but effective visual element that communicates the extent of evil in this world.
Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy did much to bring the epic fantasy genre back into the limelight and shows like Game of Thrones have made the genre more popular than ever. Game of Thrones represents a sea change in the genre and the way these fantasies typically play out. Whereas Lord of the Rings was exclusively about good battling evil, coloured by a world that had just experienced the Second World War. The line between good and evil, the allies and the nazis was more clearly defined. Lately, Game of Thrones has brought in a grittier and more cynical edge to the genre, where those old idealistic virtues of heroism and nobility are the quickest root to a sticky end. It is the schemers and the opportunists that prevail in the game of thrones. Heroic intentions will get you nowhere. You have to know how to play to get ahead.
I guess what I really liked about Warcraft is that the central conflict of man vs orc is treated with a degree of humanity in which you understand both sides. Showing how there is ultimately good and bad on each side, and in the end the righteous players on both sides must put aside their race and creed and essentially find some common ground where the living can work together to achieve a greater good against the all powerful forces of destruction. There is a noble streak within Warcraft that I really appreciated. A beating heart that is ultimately pro-life and optimistic in it’s own small way.
What I really liked was the means in which the film ends. You have the climatic battle at the end, and by it’s conclusion it sets up a pretty traditional conflict between good and evil for the next movie. Remember this movie is afterall – only the beginning. The king is dead and the people of Azeroth are united to fight the horde for the next movie. This is the big ending, the promise of more warcraft with more races, more locations and more scale. But then you consider the engineering of the events leading to this moment it takes on a more bittersweet life. Throughout the movie, human and orc have slowly been learning to trust one another. But in the penultimate battle, after they’ve saved as many innocent people as they can, the portal shuts leaving the king and his greatly reduced forces behind. Greatly overwhelmed, he realises that he isn’t going to survive this fight and as the big orc warboss approaches him with the intention of taking his head. He realises that the only thing he can do is turn to his new found friend Garona and demand she take his life, before the approaching warboss does. She doesn’t want to do it, but she stabs him in the back taking all the glory for killing the king and thusly getting promoted as the new war boss of the orc legions. It’s a tactical move played by the kind, placing his friend within a strategic location within the enemy’s ranks whereby she finally gets accepted by her own people that had ostracised her in the beginning. No one, but those two characters and of course, us the audience, know how the events were carefully engineered to inspire unification in the land.
For everybody else in Warcraft, including the plucky rogue of Lothar, she is now seen as the greater betrayer. Unifying the land in this big sequel baiting finale but holding a degree of pathos. It’s not as simple as everybody makes out.
It is just a little detail, a little nuance, that colours the usual progression of the way these films play out. The king making one last attempt to control the situation as events begin to progress beyond him. It’s the idea of history being not so simply read by the masses. Sometimes people have to sacrifice themselves for the greater good and to control the overall story which inspires greater change. It comes from a noble place but is only known to a few on an intimate level.
At the route of everything we understand about war, and all the death and destruction that is involved, we know war is an inherently bad thing. Lately popular culture tends to get a bit drunk on the spectacle of war and death, movies and video games are both guilty of this as is the mainstream media. Warcraft: The Beginning understands that war always arises out of a sense of suffering and placates this suffering elsewhere or on others. There is a sense of balance and on both sides of the conflict, it’s characters are inspired to find a way to bring balance to the world. As I’ve alluded to, this movie is made of heartier stuff than all it’s naysayers have given credit.
In 2014 with the release of Gareth Edwards’s version of Godzilla, I approached that movie looking for a semblance of the sould of his debut feature Monsters. Godzilla had some flaws but in the presentation of the big G and his accompanying kaiju adversaries, that vision felt like Gareth Edwards, which was enough to sell me on that movie. It can be easy for these new directors who have already proven themselves with their debut films to get absorbed by the monolith of a big studio picture. You are always looking for the voice of the director amidst the higher budgets and inflated visuals. There is a lot to like about Warcraft: the beginning. Particularly in it’s craft. In the end, I think there was just enough of Duncan Jones within the movie that elevates it over other movies of this scale and genre.
“You’ll never beat them in strength, be smarter” says one of the characters after a brief tussle with some green skinned behemoths. In a way this gets to the heart of what I liked about Warcraft: The Beginning. It offers all the dizzying visuals you would come to expect from a summer event movie, legions of orcs and knights charging at each other, griffins flying overhead Warhammer styled battles and lots of explosions and sorcery. Fortunately, Warcraft does have the smarts to counter the usual summer movie theatrics, the characters are surprisingly deep and are each are defined by a clear sense of motivation that reminded me a lot of the more recent Planet of the Apes movies. Though it’s not completely without it’s problems, Warcraft: The Beginning is easily the best movie adaptation of a video game license yet and I was left wanting more.
Recommended Viewing: Warcraft, fantasy and video game movies.
Super Mario Bros (1994)
THIS AIN’T NO GAME was its tagline when it was first released in 1994? Movie producers back in the 90s didn’t understand video games of course, those nerdy pixelly things the kids spend hours upon hours gawping at? Mario may have been at the height of his power, but video games were still in their infancy taking their first foray into big screen Hollywood adaptation. Nintendo have become too big and family friendly for a movie like this to be made around their official mascot. Back in 1994 Nintendo rather obliviously looked to the movie producers for the big screen treatment. The result was a mushroom kingdom realised as a slimy underground bladerunner esque world populated by dinosaur people. It’s a car crash of a movie, but it’s also a relic of the 90s and for that reason you can’t quite look away.
Plus Bob Hoskins was drunk for most of production. Try and spot which scenes those were!
I was expecting Warcraft: The Beginning to include a nod to the infamous tale of Leeroy Jenkins. I suspect if there are to be future movies, god damned Leeroy will make it in and screw it up for everyone. God damn it Leeroy.
South Park – Make Love Not Warcraft
In another world there may have been a Warcraft movie in which the nerd, the jock, the academic and the cheerleader get unwittingly sucked into the game world and are forced to co-operate with one another to beat the Lich King or whoever. During the peak of World of Warcraft, the South Park creators worked with Blizzard to make an episode within the game. It’s one of the greatest episodes of South Park ever.
Are their goblins in the Warcraft universe? How about a goblin king? There is so much CRAFT in Labyrinth, you have Jim Henson directing and his studio creating all the creatures, you have David Bowie bringing a playful purr to the story’s villain. You have Terry Jones writing it, featuring a swamp that never stops farting. Labyrinth has so much imagination on display that modern movies rarely touch.