Let’s get one thing clear from the get-go: the new Warcraft film is not very good. Depending on your taste or temperament that may or may not come as a surprise, but statistically speaking, it’s hardly an outlier. From the early days of the abortive Super Mario Bros. film, through the Dark Ages of Uwe Boll, right up to Warcraft’s $160 million mega-budget, films about games have universally sucked. There’s almost no artistic successes, and vanishingly few commercial ones, so Warcraft isn’t an outlier: it joins a rich lineage of underwhelming garbage.
So far, so predictable perhaps. There were plenty of people ready to assume the worst when the film was first announced, and at multiple times through its lengthy development process, through the first casting news and trailers, right up to release. ‘It’s a videogame film,’ many of us thought. ‘Of course it’ll be rubbish’. But to write Warcraft off on that note is to do it a disservice, for it has made an important contribution to the field: it’s found a whole new way to be a bad videogame film.
Traditionally speaking, bad videogame movies have failed because they’ve lacked respect for the source material. Few of us are likely to forget the sheer universe-encompassing confusion that accompanies anyone’s first viewing of Super Mario Bros., the brain working itself into a frenzy of cognitive dissonance as it tries to connect the simple, colorful game lore with the baffling Blade-Runner-on-LSD world of the film. Beyond the dungarees and bob-ombs, there’s little of Nintendo’s games to be found in Hollywood’s take.
If Mario was the first in line to be butchered by coked-up movie execs, there were plenty more to follow. I’ll admit to taking a perverse pleasure in watching the likes of Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat, but few could argue that either managed to capture either the detail or the spirit of their source material (even if Raúl Juliá’s performance as General M. Bison in Street Fighter basically gives me life). As the ‘90s gave way to the ‘00s, Hollywood stepped up its game, and before long Resident Evil, Doom, and Tomb Raider had all been mangled into approximate shape, but the order of the day was much the same: take the name and the visuals, trim most of the rest. Let’s be real: when you’re making a Doom film that doesn’t even feature any demons, shit has gone seriously wrong.
Faithful or not, what you can say about most of these films is that they strike some minimum level of Hollywood competency: there are actors you’ll probably recognize, they’re saying lines that sort of make sense for the most part, and the action is usually at least a bit exciting. This is where Hollywood hellspawn Uwe Boll steps in, eager to prove that niceties such as ‘scripts’ and ‘coherent plots’ are frivolous expenses that videogame movies don’t need.
“Warcraft, for all its faults, is nothing like Boll’s borderline criminal output.”
Across his monstrous assault on the games industry, Boll was responsible for films you better hope you’ve never seen including House of the Dead, Alone in the Dark, BloodRayne, In the Name of the King, Postal, and Far Cry, along with a few inexplicable sequels. He funded this campaign of terror through what was essentially a Producers-esque tax scam which gave him little incentive to make anything passably watchable. His films are characterized not just by a lack of respect for their source material, but a lack of respect for the audience, for cinema, and for life itself.
Warcraft, for all its faults, is nothing like Boll’s borderline criminal output. Nor does it have much in common with Doom, or Super Mario Bros., or any of the film industry’s other underwhelming adaptations. Warcraft is neither condescending nor does it disrespect the source material. Quite the opposite, in fact: it elevates the game’s lore to impossible heights, finding itself so in love with its own world (of warcraft) that plot and characterization take a backseat to name-dropping and referencing.
The first fifteen minutes of Warcraft are a baffling blur of places and names. We see Draenor and Azeroth, visit Ironforge and Stormwind. We meet Durotan, Gul’dan, Orgrim, Anduin, Khadgar, Garona, Medivh, Llane, the names building into a blur of consonants and unnecessary apostrophes as they mount up. I’m far from a Warcraft expert—I played WoW for a month and chose to incarnate some sort of cow man, and that’s about all I remember—and no doubt franchise fans will follow things more smoothly, but for the rest of us it’s a hopeless introduction, overstuffed with characters out of blind love and a desire to remain faithful to Azeroth’s lore.
“I’ve played just enough Hearthstone to spot a Murloc lurking in a swamp.”
One of the great delights of the most recent entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that they’ve all but done away with the origin story, recognizing that audiences don’t need tedious backstory to invest in characters. Warcraft has not only failed to learn that lesson, it actually takes things a step further, offering what is essentially an origin story for a whole universe. In telling the tale of how orcs first arrived in Azeroth, it fights to offer explanations no one needed or asked for. Did anyone really request the backstory for why orcs are green, or the invention of guns? Just put a gun in, show someone using it! We all know what guns are, we all know that orcs are green.
Some of the referencing is better handled. I’ve played just enough Hearthstone to spot a Murloc lurking in a swamp in one shot, or to chuckle as a guard is polymorphed into a sheep (one of the film’s few laughs—there are a handful of half-jokes scattered throughout, but it’s mostly all pretty po-faced). These work because they’re background details, brief moments that’ll make fans smile and pass right by everyone else.
By contrast, when most of the first 20 minutes features people talking in hushed voices about ‘the Guardian’, it just grinds things to a halt. Who, or what, is the Guardian? Why should I ever care? By the time he arrives and turns out to be an under-acted mage in a knockoff Iggy Pop outfit, I’m bored by him already—and I still don’t really know why he’s important.
Warcraft the franchise has built up hundreds of hours of plot across multiple games. Warcraft the film had just two hours, but does its level best to pay tribute to as much of that lore as possible. The result is a film that doesn’t quite come together, muddled plot and flat characters dragging down the admittedly spectacular action. But for all that, something noble has been attempted. There’s real love here for Warcraft, for Blizzard, for gaming—something that’s been lacking in Hollywood in the past. We need more of this, more respect for gaming’s worlds and stories and characters—just maybe in a better film next time?