For more than twenty years, Hollywood has tried to bring games to the big-screen. Not only do most games have a rich, detailed backstory and plot, but they also have an often large, loyal fanbase. Unfortunately, these films have never quite lived up to the expectations of either gaming fans or critics.
The Super Mario Bros film all the way back in 1993 is a great example of a fantastic game but abysmal film that seemed to be made by people who didn’t actually understand the game. And it was followed up by two equally high-profile disappointments in Street Fighter (1994) and Mortal Kombat (1995) in which the makers tried to make simple, honest fighting games into convoluted plots of political intrigue and righteous justice. And I say that as genuine fan of all three of those films. Yes, they have their problems, big gaping problems that punch you in the face every few minutes, but every time I watch them, I somehow seem to enjoy them.
Sadly, the same cannot be said of most of Hollywood’s game-film attempts this century. The Tomb Raider films were dreadful, and the likes of Max Payne and Prince of Persia not much better. Only the Resident Evil franchise and 2005’s Doom offer anything vaguely enjoyable but none of them are a spectacular success.
But in the last couple of years Hollywood has shown a renewed interest in gaming movies as studios look to branch out into new areas in an attempt to combat the dominance of Disney’s Marvel films. The disappointing Need for Speed in 2014 was followed by the slightly muddled but still tolerable Hitman: Agent 47 last year.
Later this year we are getting the game film I’m probably most looking forward to as Michael Fassbender takes on Assassin’s Creed, but I have been becoming increasingly optimistic about the Warcraft film. I never got into World of Warcraft, but loved the earlier versions of the games, especially Warcraft 2 and have been immersed in the Warcraft mythology since it first emerged in 1994. I have even read some of the books and have a particular affinity to Richard A Knaak’s War of the Ancients trilogy, so I definitely come to this film with perhaps a more sympathetic eye than many other critics…but I still want it to be good!
Well, the plot is pretty simple. There are Orcs, there are Humans, there are other races, and there is conflict. The movie takes place way back during the events of the first game and the opening of the dark portal that allowed the Orcs to travel from Draenor to Azeroth. Here is the official plot synopsis and trailer:
From Legendary Pictures and Universal Pictures comes Warcraft, an epic adventure of world-colliding conflict based on Blizzard Entertainment’s global phenomenon.
The peaceful realm of azeroth stands on the brink of war as its civilization faces a fearsome race of invaders: orc warriors fleeing their dying home to colonize another. As a portal opens to connect the two worlds, one army faces destruction and the other faces extinction. From opposing sides, two heroes are set on a collision course that will decide the fate of their family, their people and their home.
So begins a spectacular saga of power and sacrifice in which war has many faces, and everyone fights for something.
Directed by Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code) and written by Charles Leavitt and Jones, the film starring Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, Toby Kebbell, Ben Schnetzer, Rob Kazinsky and Daniel Wu is a Legendary Pictures, Blizzard Entertainment and Atlas Entertainment production.
The producers are Charles Roven, Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni, Alex Gartner and Stuart Fenegan. Jillian Share, Brent O’Connor, Michael Morhaime and Paul Sams serve as executive producers. Rob Pardo, Chris Metzen, Nick Carpenter and Rebecca Steel Roven co-produce. Warcraft will be released by Universal Pictures.
Well, Warcraft: The Beginning isn’t a bad movie, but it would be a stretch to claim it is a good movie. The gamer in me loved the inclusion of characters and locations I recognise and spent years playing with and in. But the movie watcher in me lamented the lack of development of most of these characters, and the staccato almost episodic plot that seemed to jump from one event to the next with little transition.
Thankfully, I have enough background knowledge to know and understand who many of the characters are. But for those coming to the film without a gaming and Warcraft background, there is almost nothing on screen that can inform the viewer about them or their motivations. It is probably the biggest flaw in a film that is, in all honesty, full of flaws. The lack of development for all but maybe a couple of characters means that any of the emotional moments lack any real impact and fail to engage with the audience in the manner which was presumably expected.
Without wanting to give any spoilers, there are changes evident in the characters and their relationships that seem random and completely without motive or rationale. The regularity of this leads to a level of detachment from the audience and really prevents the viewer from fully engaging with developments on-screen.
The script is decent enough, with enough levity to ensure the film isn’t brought down by the failed attempts at emotional scenes. But the film suffers from the need to establish the Warcraft world on screen, in so far as it always feels like a prelude to a bigger, more meaningful film.
There are also underlying contradictions in the film. It feels rushed and yet not much seems to happen. The filmmakers have tried to cram far too many characters and story into the film and yet, by the end of it, it doesn’t feel like much has really happened. The CGI characters seem to be far more rounded and developed than the human characters.
The film also suffers a little from Return of the King-itis. It seems to have a number of different endings, each of which would’ve worked on their own, but start to lose some of their impact when they are strung together.
But it isn’t all bad. The visuals are mostly excellent. The landscapes are stunning and the sets are interesting and varies. The weaponry and armour are also perfect, which is unsurprising given the use of the fantastic Weta Workshop. It really helps establish the world of Warcraft and highlights the differences and similarities between the various factions.
The CGI is, for the most part, top notch. The depiction of the orcs is superb and shows a nuance that is rarely evident in CGI. It brings the hybridisation of CGI and real-life to a new level and as the film progresses it is easy to forget that you are not watching actual orcs. There is a weightiness and heft to them that I have only previously seen in the recent Planet of the Apes prequels, and it really adds an extra layer of depth to the characters that was missing in other recent films like the Hobbit Trilogy. But the brilliance of the orcs makes the obvious greenscreen CGI scenes with the human characters all the more irritating. There are scenes with humans riding gryphons that look like they’re literally put onto the background and moved around – even Harry Potter riding a hippogriff seemed to be executed better!
Warcraft is certainly by no means a great film. There a flaws aplenty from the staccato pacing to the seemingly truncated storyline in which a lot appears to happen on screen but ends with a sense that not much has been resolved. It feels more like a prelude than a standalone film where many of the characters receive little to no development.
And yet, for all its many faults, I still found the film to be moderately enjoyable. It has a warmth and occasional levity that other similarly poor films like Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice do not, which ensures that it doesn’t fester in its missteps. While I don’t think it is a classic, I am interested, and perhaps even eager, to watch a full, extended cut of the film as I suspect that may resolve a number of the pacing, character development and plot issues. And perhaps more importantly to Blizzard, I would also be interested to see what Jones and the studio can do with a sequel, now that a lot of the groundwork has already been done.