The Warcraft movie was a two-hour catastrophe. Yet that didn’t stop me from enjoying myself. So rather than retch out yet another crucifying take on it, I thought it’d be more interesting to try and figure out why I enjoyed it. To do that, we’re going to have to dig deep into the series’ evolving relationship with its own lore.
This isn’t my attempt to try and exonerate the film of its faults (of which there are many). I’m not trying to avoid the truth that the Warcraft movie was a stinking, wet, hot pile. But you can get that from other reviews; what you’re less likely to read is the perspective of a long-time fan of the franchise.
Now, join me in trying to understand why this movie hurls twenty years of lore into a raging dumpster fire that, oddly enough, I can’t help but throw myself on.
Mining for Lore
Warcraft is a retelling of the first contact between orcs and humans. The Hollywood version of this historical event is different from the one the games and books established, but that’s nothing new; long-time Warcraft fans should be no strangers to changes in the lore.
Developer Blizzard Entertainment has retconned the Warcraft history several times already. Each new iteration is sewn into the ongoing saga of orcs versus humans, Horde versus Alliance, like a big Warcraft quilt. These threads have entwined together to add backstory for new races or characters to play, or to change the relationship between orcs and humans as either bitter enemies or reluctant allies. Sometimes there’s little care for what gets replaced; the changes are always in favor of the most recent thing. Still, there are certain touchstones that must be met for any new thing to be defined as Warcraft or Not Warcraft, and the film does deliver on those.
The first and most significant touchpoint is the orcs — the film’s non-human antagonists. In Warcraft: Orcs and Humans, the orcs were defined as being green-skinned, bloodthirsty brutes — right in line with their traditional fantasy role as bad guys. But an appealing feature of the 1995 game was that you got to play them; you got to be the bad guys and raze helpless villages or weak, pathetic humans. Blizzard later attempted in Warcraft III to make the orcs more well-rounded by filling out their past, making them feel haunted by betrayal and longing to return to the ways of their warrior’s code. It is this Klingon-esque version of them that the film chooses to represent; they’re brutish, but for them honorable combat means everything. This makes the orcs at least semi-sympathetic to the human movie-going audience, and I think it was a good decision. It manages to endear Durotan and the rest of the Frostwolf clan to audiences both familiar with the games and not. The clear distinction between the the noble, brown-skinned Frostwolves and their corrupted green-skinned brethren also offers a visual indication of which giant CG monster to root for.
Heroes are the other major touchpoint to any Warcraft product. Blizzard has progressively increased the importance of the Warcraft universe’s heroes with each release, which over time greatly enriched their lore. In the first two RTS games, hero units were present in only a handful of missions to add essential map variety, but by Warcraft III they were a critical part of the gameplay. By extension, the lore expanded with their greater roles. With the film, Blizzard saw an opportunity to flex their characters to fit a greater vision. The film’s orc warlock, Gul’dan, is still the epitome of evil he was from the games, but in the context of the film he’s evil to the point of parody. Still, it took seeing him on the big screen to see that he has an irredeemably devilish charm, the kind of villain a middle schooler would scribble down for his first D&D campaign. Meanwhile, Anduin Lothar, the human commander, is the too-cool protagonist, as capable on the battlefield as he is winning the affections of Garona, the half orc… spy? Assassin? Translator? Her role in the film version of the Warcraft narrative is tragically underwhelming; she’s only relevant for a handful of plot-important moments, and even those seem half-assed.
For a Warcraft fan like me, it’s neat to see these distinct elements from one of my favorite game franchises realized on the silver screen. However, the movie assumes that everyone watching it will carry with them the same internalized lore, retcons and all. That wouldn’t be too much of an issue if it had been telling a brand new story, but there is enough implied backstory that outsiders won’t help but feel like they’re missing something. Warcraft does not follow any clear themes or story structure, and as such, this would be an infuriating film for anyone who has never seen or played a Warcraft game.
Maybe the rest of the plot was in the forty minutes that got cut. Elements like “the fel,” the demonic essence that corrupted the orcs and turned them green, were simplified for the film version, but it’s done in such an inelegant, incomplete way. No, we didn’t need to hear how the demon Mannoroth spilled his corrupt blood for the orcs to drink like we did in Warcraft III, but we also didn’t need the film’s half-hearted mystery that never got fully realized. The intentions were good — to make an accessible two-hour story be on on par with the foundation of twenty years of Warcraft — but the story lacked too much to make it truly engaging for those who have not invested hundreds of hours in World of Warcraft.
For the Fans
If Warcraft had been uploaded to YouTube as a fan-made movie, it would have been an impressive, if lackluster, undertaking. The visuals are superb, but the story and pacing is just shy of torture. As it is, you can see that the love for the game is there, but with none of the expected professional execution from a big budget Hollywood release.
Regardless, I did like the movie. Against everything it threw at me and against my better judgment, I liked it, damn it. But I did not feel a little thrill tingling my spine when I saw the sweeping majesty of the human capital of Stormwind; my heart did not swell with orcish pride at the sight of the Dark Portal being built. I’m almost certain my mouth was agape for the first ten minutes of the film — not from any awe-inspiring scene, but from disbelief at the pacing nightmare that I and the rest of the theater were witnessing. By all accounts, I should have hated Warcraft, but what kept me going was the unending curiosity of asking myself, “Okay, what’s next?” As in, “what’s the next awful scene going to show me?”
Maybe I’d feel differently if the movie “felt” more fun. But Warcraft takes itself fairly seriously — curious, considering how the games have become increasingly whimsical and reliant on pop culture references. Oh, it’s not completely devoid of humor, but for the most part, it tries desperately to convince you how grave everything is. Actors look far off in the distance with haunted (re: glazed) eyes, while Gul’dan slowly sucks the life out of a human captive for no other reason than because he’s evil. Warcraft lacks the campiness that endears me to other terrible video game movies, like Mortal Kombat, the undisputed champion. But seeing the new vision of an ongoing story I have consumed over many years? Yeah, I guess I could stand to endure two hours and three minutes of a literal Warcraft lore dump.
The Warcraft movie did not leave me hating Blizzard. (Obviously.) Hell, I don’t even hate Warcraft as a series after this. Instead the movie is just one more weird reason for fans to love everything about Warcraft. The movie feels like this bizarre thing that shouldn’t exist, and it’s practically a miracle that it does. As a fan, how can you not embrace that anyway? It’s part of One Big Family now.
If you love all things Warcraft, you’ve probably been waiting since 2008 to see this movie. And you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t; there are a few moments of fan service that pop up that feel validating. Just don’t expect anything approaching the level of quality you’re used to. And if you haven’t ever played a Warcraft game but are still set on seeing it, well… Light be with you.
Ultimately, I came away from Warcraft not feeling embarrassed of my fandom. (Yes, in spite of my better judgment.) So in lieu of that, I figured I’d do it myself with this musical submission a friend and I recorded for BlizzCon 2008. May you enjoy it even less than you enjoy the Warcraft movie.
NitWitty Score: “For the Horde! For the Alliance! And not for anyone else!”