Games turned into movies rarely work. The evidence is there to see, in shudderingly weak examples – ‘Dungeons and Dragons’, ‘Dragon Ball Evolution’, ‘Super Mario Bros’, ‘Prince of Persia’ and so on. (‘Silent Hill’ I rather enjoyed, though.) As a long-time player of World of Warcraft – a veteran of Classic WoW in fact – I was intrigued to discover how the world of Azeroth would translate into film.
The lore of WoW is notoriously convoluted. The story-tellers at Blizzard Entertainment have shamelessly plundered a variety of mythologies over the years in order to build the history of their world. You can spot influences from Lovecraft, Norse Myth, Egyptian Myth, Native American culture, to name but a few. It goes without saying some of the races – Orcs, Dwarves and Elves, for example – can also be found in Tolkien’s work. But Tolkien didn’t invent these creatures. A lot of his ideas came from mythology too. But naturally, because Lord of the Rings is the iconic story of these mythical races – many people know more about LOTR than they do about the source material – any creative endeavour that loots the same sources will inevitably be regarded as somewhat plagiaristic. I’ve never thought this particularly fair.
The lore of WoW has always interested me, simply because it’s so well fleshed out – it’s detailed enough to rival Tolkien’s world-building, even down to the creation of languages. As a story-teller myself I enjoyed that part of the game and became immersed in it. A few of my own stories were inspired by my experiences in Azeroth. I knew that a WoW movie had long been a dream for Blizzard, and several directors had, over the years, been associated with it, but the project never took off. When I read that Duncan Jones had taken up the sword, I felt instinctively that this time it would happen. I’d enjoyed his two previous films – ‘Moon’ and ‘Source Code’ – and when it became clear he was also a fan of WoW, who wanted to do the lore justice, my optimism increased. Was it wisely placed? For me, yes.
I cannot honestly say if people who aren’t aware of the lore will find it as satisfying as I did, but I think those who love fantasy will enjoy it regardless. The advantage the LOTR movies had was that a large percentage of viewers had read the books and were aware – at least to some degree – of Middle Earth’s history. It was part of popular culture. And while WoW is undeniably the most popular MMO ever created, its audience is somewhat niche in comparison to Tolkien’s books. I hope to go and see Warcraft again in the cinema, with friends who don’t play the game and get their opinions, but from what I’ve heard from other players, their non-WoW friends really enjoyed the film.
When I first saw ‘Fellowship of the Ring’, I became so immersed in Middle Earth that when the film was over I remained in a daze for the journey home from the cinema. I had a similar feeling with ‘Warcraft’. I was unaware of the passing of time, and was so completely in Azeroth, I was somewhat stunned when suddenly it was all over and the end credits were scrolling on screen. Part of the pleasure, of course, was seeing familiar places created, as if for real. It was like watching a film of a country in which I had spent a lot of time and remembered fondly. I had ridden down those forest paths, flown over those deserts. I had walked through the city of Stormwind and visited the keep. I had met Llane Wrynn’s son Varian, and Varian’s son Anduin, (named of course after Anduin Lothar who appears in the film). I had worked for and with the mage Khadgar, and had explored the haunted ruins of Karazhan, where once Medivh had worked his magic. I had even fought and killed Moroes, the undead steward of Karazhan, many many times. (Poor old bugger! As if he hasn’t suffered enough.) I had lived for a couple of years in the flying city of Dalaran. I had gone back in time with Khadgar and other lore figures to an alternate Draenor and befriended Durotan and Draka and their clan, fought with them to vanquish Guldan and defeat the Iron Horde. Back in ‘real time Azeroth’, I had helped the shaman Go’el (or Thrall as he became known), the son of Durotan, fend off deadly threats. I’ve been doing these things in my leisure time for nearly twelve years. So the film was like home to me and its characters like old friends.
Another thing that worked for me was the fact that Duncan Jones told a balanced story. I had read that previous scripts shown to Blizzard had always centred on the orcs being archetypal baddies, while the humans were the white knights in shining armour, destined to vanquish their bestial enemies. I also read that Blizzard had not been happy with this kind of treatment, because it wasn’t representative of how Azeroth is. In WoW, you can choose your faction and race, and play either for the Horde (led by the orcs) or the Alliance (led by the humans). Neither faction is presented as wholly ‘good’ or wholly ‘evil’, although you encounter bad ‘uns on both sides. The factions simply have a different world-view, different aspirations, religions and cultures. You could say that the ‘other side’ is often demonised because of a lack of understanding, or shallow judgements made on physical appearances. Not to be all PC, but there’s an amount of racism involved, although both factions have committed atrocities in the past. I was impressed that Jones intended not to go for the easy route of a run-of-the-mill good vs evil story. Yes, there are nasty characters who have to be overcome, but there is good and bad on both sides. What isn’t highlighted so much in the film, and which is very important in terms of plot, is that the Burning Legion are behind everything, influencing certain characters to further its destructive aims. The Burning Legion is part of the pre-history of Azeroth, interdimensional and demonic, and never up to any good. If there are further films in this series – and I sincerely hope there are – the Legion’s influence will probably become clear. (I can’t imagine the story being furthered without involving this aspect of Azerothian history.)
Because of the depth of the lore, not of all of which could be crammed into a mere couple of hours, some viewers might find the story rather rushed. You are whizzed to Dalaran for only scant minutes, for example – I wanted to see more of it. There could have been further development in the characters’ relationships, but I didn’t feel as if this aspect was sacrificed so that extra fighting scenes could be included, which is often a fault of films, and not just of the fantasy genre. (The material that was left out of ‘Prometheus’ for example, and the excessively long fight scenes – argh! And no director’s cut yet where the interesting stuff is put back in.) There just wasn’t enough time in Warcraft for everything. If there is a director’s cut – and there really should be – I’m hoping more detail will be added to flesh the story out.
As for the casting, I didn’t feel any of it was jarring. If I were to pick nits I suppose I could say Khadgar was the least how I imagine him – really didn’t like that facial hair, but that’s subjective – but the rest were spot on. (Khadgar, in the game, is probably what you’d refer to as a ‘silver fox’, but of course he had to grow into that.) I’ve read negative reviews that have scorned some of the performances, but I was never jerked out of the story by bad acting. All seemed convincing to me. The mo-cap CGI of the orc characters was particularly believable – after a few minutes I forgot they weren’t real, because they looked real to me. The landscapes were awesome too. There was humour and sadness in the tale, and the plot didn’t shy away from the consequences of war. I won’t go into the actual plot in detail because – well, just go and see the film – but the initial premise is that the orcs seek a new home after their world dies. Starving and homeless, they travel through a magically-conjured Dark Portal to Azeroth as refugees and, as we know in reality, masses of refugees turning up often initiates conflict and prejudice, never mind when they look like orcs. But even the orcs don’t know the motives that really lie behind the warlock Guldan’s choice of destination. They are soon to find out – painfully – as do the original inhabitants of Azeroth. Only through alliance can the diverse races hope to survive.
The negative reviews are disappointing, but I think a lot of them can be down to three things in particular. One, some people were determined to hate the film whatever it was like. Two, some reviewers dislike this genre of film anyway and review it dismissively without really giving it a fair chance. Three, Duncan Jones always had that mountain before him of previous film adaptations of games. Some people won’t even bother going to see Warcraft because of that. All in all, this is a great shame. Warcraft is beautifully-made, engaging and well-told, head and shoulders above other films of its kind. People who don’t like fantasy films probably won’t warm to it – I can’t see it changing their opinion of the genre. But those who enjoy being transported into fantasy worlds will be entertained. I just hope the negative reviews don’t affect the possibility of Azeroth’s story being continued. I can’t wait to see Illidan and Arthas on the big screen. I am so prepared.*
*Obligatory WoW in-joke.