By Abe Rose
There is an unspoken rule that I follow for story criticism: if you care for the characters enough, you will follow them to the ends of Mount Doom, slogging through nine and a half hours of exposition, lore and travelogues. It’s the rule that sets the original Star Wars trilogy apart from the prequels. Care for the characters, and you can care for the world that they inhabit. It’s the golden rule that I follow in deciding whether or not to emotionally get on board with a film. In the case of Duncan Jones’s Warcraft, there is not a single character to emotionally gravitate towards, out of like six hundred characters gravitating towards each other right before they bash each other’s brains out.
I say this up front, because, puzzling to me, I still found myself somewhat enjoying this clunky, problematic movie. After a lot of thorough self-reflection, I think I have figured out how the movie bewitched my cinematic standards in taste.
Remember how Avatar was supposed to be this incredibly made spectacle that was supposed to go down as an instant-classic? Hell, it made more money than conceivably imaginable. Yet it left almost zero cultural impact. As South Park wisely put it, the movie was Dances with Wolves in outer space with Smurfs. The best defense I remember hearing for the movie was, “Oh it has terrible characters, and the story isn’t worth caring about, but MAN, you gotta see it! The spectacle is incredible! It’s a visual masterpiece!” I think people were simply floored by the world it created, and that had overridden valid criticisms for the story.
I think that is what happened to me when I saw Warcraft. Okay, Avatar-fans, I get it now. I wasn’t visually floored by the world of Avatar because I had already spent hundreds of hours exploring similar worlds in World of Warcraft. When I watched the big screen cinematic recreation of the world of Azeroth, I found myself being touched by old memories of those virtual places that I had explored with my friends. There’s Stormwind Castle, where we would polymorph into Timbermaw bears and chase each other around the city. There’s Ironforge, where fifty players spontaneously broke out into a line dance. In a very serious moment for the movie, the orcs and humans decide to make a truce at Blackrock Mountain, and all I could think of is how my human warrior character wore a tuxedo and went to that exact dangerous place only to meet an enemy orc also wearing a tuxedo. We could have attacked each other, but instead we laughed and hugged, and I told him in orcish, “me lo ve u.” And then we went on our separate ways.
I spent hundreds of hours exploring the lands of Azeroth. As did many others. World of Warcraft, once had more than 12 million subscribers; that’s more people than there are citizens of Greece. So, for people that have invested hundreds of hours into World of Warcraft, does the movie play differently for them than people going into the movie blind? That’s the kind of question that I’ve hated dealing with in the past. I’ve always felt that a movie should be able to stand on its own merits, lest we validate those types of claims that state that outsiders “just don’t get it because the movie wasn’t made for them.” To the cinematic layman, this movie probably seems like a cheesy Sci-Fi Channel original movie. To people who spent hundreds of hours exploring the game, this still seems like a cheesy Sci-Fi Channel original movie but with times where we can sporadically get excited for a moment, point our fingers, and think, “Dear lord, that’s a Murloc! I hope it does the sound. It did the sound! Mwarlllrarerlllegggeghhlll.”
The premise of the story is that the Orcish home-world of Draenor is depleted of all of its resources. The Fel Orc. Gul’Dan (Daniel Wu) uses his evil fel magic to open a portal to the world of Azeroth, where they will claim a new home. Problem is, the other side is already populated by the standard archetypes of fantasy characters: elves, dwarves, wizards, but sadly no Hobbits. The good King Lane (Dominic Cooper) entrusts the help of his wise Guardian Medivh (Ben Foster) to repel the incoming invasion. They are not so good at crafting characters that we can invest in emotionally, but they are certainly good at crafting war.
Director Duncan Jones previously made one of the best recent sci-fi movies in recent years, Moon. That movie was small, and quietly focused, while Warcraft is massive and sprawling. I think this is where the key problem with the movie is. The pacing of the movie turns the Game of Thrones-level of fantastical, political complexity into a chaotic travelogue. It would be like trying to condense an entire season of the show into a two-hour long movie. It is very apparent that about forty minutes of material was cut from this film, for there is no moment to pause and grant viewers a bearing on the political implications, or gaze at the beauty of the world, or gain insight into the human characters. It’s like watching David Lynch’s Dune, which took incredibly lengthy source material and chopped it into a SparkNotes summary.
There are moments of real intrigue, but those moments are often squished next to moments of flat comedy. Surprisingly, the closest we get to real, believable characters is on the Orcish side, in which everything is rendered CGI. The Orcs are not as cartoonishly evil as in Lord of the Rings, but rather, they more resemble the honorable Klingons who are too prideful to back down from a bad politician putting them in a bad war. The film is far more engaging when it focuses on the reluctant Chieftan Duro’Tan, rather than the fumbly-bumbly mage, Khadgar, a seventeen year old with a knack for knocking things over and not inspiring the audience to laugh. Perhaps the real problem here is the age-old green screen. The performance of the orcs are all controlled to the last minutia, but the human performances are wholly dependent on having the actors believe they are interacting with a magical world that isn’t really there. It’s like putting real people in a cartoon world. If I were to put on shiny armor and stand in front of a giant green screen and speak Dalaran-lore, I probably would give it as much effort as trying to make a Kindergarten performance believable.
The film does not work, but with a longer cut and a re-emphasis on who the main characters are, it could work. Hell, maybe even go for the mini-series route, bypassing the Sci-Fi Channel, and go for the HBO quality. And maybe for sequels, the filmmakers should seriously consider casting actors with real enthusiasm for the world. Apparently, Jamie Lee Curtis (who is not in the movie) dressed up as an orc for the premiere, shouting “LEEEEROOOYYY JENKINS!”
Please cast her in the next movie. It could be a franchise-saving move.