Warcraft: High Fantasy on the Big Screen
Last Saturday I went to see the new Warcraft film. Unlike most of the movies I’ve gone to see lately, I was really unsure of this one, and I suspect some of my readers might feel the same, so in a Burn the Map first, I’m going to review it for you. Don’t worry, there won’t be any spoilers. In fact, I won’t say much about specific characters or plot points at all.
First, the short version: I was impressed.
O.K., I’ll give you a little more:
To start with, I should explain, for the benefit of those living under a rock since the mid-90s, that Warcraft is a fantasy tale, originally a computer game by Blizzard entertainment, telling the story of a war between the mostly-human Alliance and the orcish Horde. When the game was first released, the story was basically the minimum required to stitch together a bunch of real-time strategy levels into some kind of narrative. As sequels were produced, though, the tale evolved, growing fairly rich for a video game of its time. The Warcraft film starts at the beginning, telling the story that brings about the events of the original game.
By way of a disclaimer, I should say that I am not a dyed-in-the-wool Warcraft fan. I do not play World of Warcraft. I did play the original games, back in the day when you still had to know how to execute commands at a DOS prompt to install them, and I do enjoy the world that Blizzard has created (Azeroth) and the shifting tides of war between what turn out to be two reasonably sympathetic civilizations (though this was not really the case in the first couple of games). I say all this only to make clear that if Blizzard messed the story around in a way that doesn’t do justice to the source material, I have no idea, so any hardcore fans, please direct your outrage to the nearest Blizzard website, not at me.
Going in with only a passing foreknowledge of the story and no expectations, however, I greatly enjoyed the film. That said, I am going to present the cons first, so as to end on a high note.
1. Much of the film is computer-generated. CG effects and characters don’t offend me as much as they do some film purists, but here the issue is that it felt like I was watching last year’s CG where it pertained to the computer-animated orcs. I acclimated to it fairly quickly, with the exception of a shot or two later on, and it didn’t take me out of the story, but it was noticeable. Still, I do want to be clear we were nowhere near the “uncanny valley” – the motion-capture Beowulf it is not, thank goodness.
2. The movie suffered from a bit of a muddy start. I can’t put it much better than that without going into more detail than it’s worth, but it felt like about fifteen minutes before I really had characters and events that I could get a grip on to start following the story.
3. The characters feel very one-dimensional at first. Over the course of the film this story-telling technique bears fruit, as we learn the various players’ personalities purely based on the action we see before us, but without the benefit of hindsight, the characters will seem pretty generic in the beginning.
1. Everything I said about the CG for the orcs you can reverse for the magical effects. I found those to be bright and crisp and pitch-perfect with only one or two exceptions.
2. Oh, yeah, there are magic effects! It was very refreshing in a media world dominated by low-magic fantasy such as Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings to see a movie with wizards tossing fireballs and lightning bolts and teleporting across the globe. I like the less fantastic stuff, too, but this was a welcome change of pace.
3. The props and costumes were spot-on. Don’t misunderstand, a historian would look at them and laugh…or even cringe…but Warcraft has always had a very specific aesthetic feel, and translating that to the screen without losing it or making it look cartoonish had to have been a challenge. For my money, the filmmakers walked that line flawlessly.
4. This is perhaps my greatest compliment. The movie was not dark, and didn’t try to be. This is important because the general backdrop is (not to put too fine a point on it) genocidal war. Also, other franchises have been making money hand-over-fist lately by taking any subject matter they can find and shooting it through a darker, grimier lens than tradition suggests. I’m sure the financial temptation was there to go darker and more amoral, but that would have been the wrong direction for this story. What we get instead is not an immature, “happily ever after” tale, either, but rather a more epic saga, in the sense you can imagine if you remember back to when the word “epic” actually had a meaning. Heroes and villains alike face tough choices, and while the consequences are often tragic, they never feel arbitrary.
Warcraft is a change from the recently-established norm for fantasy and adventure film on a variety of fronts. Most importantly, we are rewarded with a refreshingly mythical world, a world where good and evil matter even though they aren’t always obvious. Stick with it through the first reel, and by the time the credits roll you’ll be ready for a sequel.