Film adaptations of video games tend to find themselves in a strange place – needing enough familiarity to appeal to long-time fans of the franchise, while at the same time keeping things fresh for a wider audience.
Warcraft: The Beginning, despite the might of the game franchise and developer Blizzard’s star power in the video games industry, is no different.
I could go into a long history about Warcraft, having played the original in 1994 and every related game since, but I’ll spare you the details and condense the story: Orcs from a dying planet called Draenor open a gate with demon magic to the world of Azeroth, which is populated by different races including the humans. They fight.
To Warcraft fans familiar with the history of orcs (and later friends) vs humans (and friends), parts of Duncan Jones’ “alternate history” may feel different, perhaps even forced (to mirror certain events from the main timeline in the game).
To those without such knowledge, the actions of the various characters may sometimes seem confusing, something which the constant cutting between both factions doesn’t make any better.
Don’t get me wrong. Warcraft: The Beginning is visually gorgeous. From landscapes like the Orcish Horde’s encampment and the floating city of Dalaran to the magical effects of spells cast by Medivh (Ben Foster) and Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), the visuals are nothing but stunning.
Sure, you don’t get to see the elven kingdom of Quel’Thalas or one of the many other amazing cityscapes from the World of Warcraft video game, but it’s a taste of what we can hope to see if the franchise is nurtured on the big screen.
Unfortunately, visuals only make up one part of the show. Story-telling is key in any film, and it is here that Warcraft falls short, especially when you consider how rich the universe built up by Blizzard in the games is.
There’s very little depth to most of the characters, making them feel like shallow caricatures of your standard Hollywood tropes. Stormwind’s King Llane Wrynn (Dominic Cooper) and Frostwolves chieftan Durotan (Toby Kebbell) are your (usual) valiant leaders, Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel) is the heroic warrior, while Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) is your chief irredeemable orcish villain.
Add to that the young mage Khadgar, the old guardian Medivh, the half-orc Garona (Paula Patton), and a couple more characters who you don’t even remember (seriously, Grommash Hellscream was there? Where?!), and you’ve got too many parts with too little screen time.
A part of what makes the Warcraft game universe so rich is the depth their characters have, painfully built up over more than two decades. Something like that would always have been a challenge to translate into 120 minutes or so.
It feels like a lot of what’s happening onscreen kinda requires you to have some background knowledge of the Warcraft universe. Those who do will find little easter eggs here and there that will bring bits of laughter, but for the others, you might feel a little left out (sorry if anyone heard me go “OMG Varian Wrynn soooo small”).
The relationships between the characters aren’t properly explored, so when the key moments finally happen, a part of you might be left wondering “why”. It almost feels like the audience needs a quick Warcraft 101 class before jumping into this movie, and that really shouldn’t be the case.
It’s even more disappointing when you consider what Blizzard has produced in the past two decades. Their cinematic intros are the stuff of legend within the video games scene, and their story-telling is usually top-notch (just look at the intros for World of Warcraft’s Warlords of Draenor or Legion or the animated shorts for Overwatch).
For a movie I really wanted to see do well, the flaws are such terrible letdowns. A part of me does hope the movie does well enough to warrant a sequel (it certainly sets itself up as such), so that we get to see more pretty visuals, but another part of me thinks this might have been too big a franchise to turn into a movie. Perhaps a 10-part HBO series might have been the better choice.
I’d still be able to recommend this movie to anyone who likes the franchise or fantasy in general, even if it’s just to get a feel of the Warcraft universe.
But for the average man on the street, unless you have that one friend who seems to know waaaaay too much about Warcraft (*waves to friends*), Warcraft: The Beginning, may just overwhelm you like the Orcish Horde did to humans at the start, in a similarly messy manner.