The 2016 Warcraft movie was hit by a critical backlash, and box office that didn’t ignite the planned sequel – but there’s more to the film that it’s given credit for.
The phrase ‘video game movie’ rarely fill fans of either medium with glee. Any film being launched in this subset of movies almost immediately attracts a lack of faith in fans of either games or movies. When a game makes its way to the silver screen, the typical expectation is that your viewing experience will be inferior to either viewing any other movie in the same genre, or inferior to just playing the game yourself. You only need to look at the lack of expectation for the upcoming Monster Hunter adaptation for an example of this attitude.
This kind of apathy was the exact emotion I felt towards the Warcraft movie that released back in 2016.
I am a player of World Of Warcraft and am fairly familiar with the series and its lengthy history. Initially excited at the prospect of seeing Azeroth at the movies, I fell into the trap of ignoring Warcraft: The Beginning (as the film was initially titled) for fear of being disappointed by yet another video game movie, so I wrote off Duncan Jones’ adaptation without little thought. Recently, I found a DVD copy, sat down, and watched it. I’ve since watched it three more times and would like to set the record straight: Warcraft is a better film that it was given credit for.
I should note from the start I do see it has problems. The human side of the story is very busy, with too many key players on this side. As such, the movie struggles to juggle which human is the true protagonist, so all feel a little underserved. This renders their side of the film too fast to process, jumping between settings without letting revelations fully breathe. I’d argue this is perhaps why so many critics disliked the film. But seeing the film from the orcs’ perspective is an entirely different experience.
Trekking to Azeroth through a portal to seek out a new world to continue their race’s survival, the orc refugees-come-invaders of Azeroth have a clear honour code amongst them. As such, the tension between nefarious, Fel-wielding evil leader Gul’dan and Durotan, the film’s Orc protagonist thrums with energy throughout.
Gul’dan has little care for anything other than domination, rendering him a very powerful antagonist. Durotan meanwhile fears the magics wielded by the aged orc, exhibiting a wariness other orcs scoff at. This drives him to break free of that honour code to contact the humans, trying to resolve their differences so that they can all coexist on Azeroth. All this tension comes from his own, personal ambition to provide for his newborn son. The orcs are by far the most compelling set of characters to follow throughout the film.
Performances too are engaging. The orcs definitely win out in this particular war, given how great the chemistry between Durotan and his wife, Draka (Toby Kebbell and Anna Galvin, respectively), comes across. Orcs are distinct, each with their own personality. The human side is weaker, but still has Ben Foster as Medivh. It also has lead character Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), essentially played as a sort of Aragorn.
Reading those initial reviews, there were complaints about the orcs appearing cartoonish against the fierce realism of the human world, but I would also wager this is unfair criticism. The orcs are meant to be cartoonish, as this is a clear (and successful) attempt to translate the art style of the Warcraft universe to the silver screen. There’s some truly stunning work from the effects geniuses at Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) too. The CGI terrifically gets across the world of Warcraft, and the orcs themselves.
Indeed, the seamless use of CGI liberally throughout Warcraft is one of the film’s greatest strengths. Despite being entirely false, the orcs bring all the brute force they are famed for to each encounter with the humans of Stormwind. Combat between the humans and orcs feels incredibly weighty, with fight scenes making excellent use of Ramin Djawadi’s pounding score and the overly loud clash of axes on armour to accent every weapon swing. They even manage to make a fight between two fully-CGI orcs into one of the best one-on-one combat scenes I’ve watched in a long time, both with excellent fight choreography and emotional investment.
Warcraft’s visual achievements don’t just stop at scene-setting, though. Suits of armour are perfect matches for the outrageous armaments found in the games, and magic as it appears here is truly wondrous, melting enemies in place, peeling their very souls from their bodies or conjuring great thunderstorms to kill them with the swish of a hand. Coupled with the wonderful set design and perfectly absurd costume work, this cartoon aesthetic really marks Azeroth out as a unique fantasy world.
Plot-wise, you would be forgiven for losing track of what is happening from time to time. Warcraft is trying to establish a lot of background lore and also to lay the groundwork for what would have been, so it’s understandable that things move very quickly and some locales are left without much exploration. Even if you can’t invest in the intimate, family stories that lie at the heart of the film, you can certainly enjoy climactic battle scenes and revel in on-screen action with glee. This is utter popcorn cinema, and Warcraft revels in its visual appeal, as it should.
Generally, the film sat much more favourably with veteran players of the game, but the movie doesn’t require prior experience of the franchise to comprehend or engage with what is happening on-screen.
I’m not championing Warcraft as a perfect film, but it never needed or wanted to be. What it was trying to be was an entertaining way of bringing one of gaming’s richest universe to the silver screen, and Warcraft as a film captures the scale of Azeroth and establishes the conflicts between its peoples well.
Ending on a definite cliffhanger, the stage is very much set for a potential sequel. Despite this, and Jones’ vocal support and desire to direct future Warcraft movies, the film’s negative reception has probably ended any chance of the next film (reportedly in development with Legendary Pictures) being connected to this one. Whatever happens, Legendary’s continued belief in Warcraft’s cinematic potential, depending on what parts of the world they focus on, will likely pay off in the future.
For now, though, I reckon the movie we’ve got is worth another look.
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