Warcraft: The Beginning
Despite my reservations, I caved. I saw the Warcraft film.
Coming off the first trailer, I had my trepidations. The dialogue, such as it was, was trite and clichéd. The animation (more on that later) was, frankly, silly looking. I figured this whole venture was nothing more than cynical fanservice – Blizzard has definitely reoriented itself over the last half decade and more towards unscrupulous profit creation, and I thought that this was more of the same.
Banality, as far as the eye can see…
It wasn’t until Mark Kermode’s grudgingly positive review that I decided to commit.
I’d have to say that I largely agree with his estimation – you can see director Duncan Jones trying to hammer this behemoth of an intellectual property into a compelling story, and, for the most part, he succeeds. Unfortunately, it’s telling that it was a struggle every step. There must be some concessions given on the grounds that this is a first-off, for both the Warcraft universe and Blizzard as a whole, so there is necessarily going to be some dry ground to cover, some limbering up before we get to a running pace. That said, I hope the stage-setting that this film in many ways existed for doesn’t stall the whole venture altogether.
I’ll be honest, while I was an avid fan of the series when I was younger, WCII being my first real gaming experience, my enthusiasm started to wane with Warcraft III. WCIII, of course, was a stepping-stone for the genre-defining MMORPG World of Warcraft, and, given my distaste with the prelude, I wasn’t crash hot on the main course. The polygonal animation schema irritated me, and I couldn’t really get behind the pay-for-play scheme, which seems to have become the norm across most platforms now. The storyline, with each successive addition to WoW, has also become a bit ridiculous – it’s telling that the next expansion is revisiting the past, hearkening back to the original vitality (time travel – the plot device of knaves, thieves and people written into a corner!). But, this is meant to be a review of the film, not the whole body of work.
Characterisation: I caught myself on numerous occasions, primarily with the un-animated humans thinking – I’ve seen that actor before… but where? A quick look over at IMDB dissolves the mystery, but I’ll save you the time – Travis Fimmel, playing our protagonist Anduin Lothar, is, as everyone should know, the lead on History’s Vikings. Ben Schnetzer, as Khadgar – the one I had most trouble with – was one of the mains in last year’s Pride. Dominic Cooper, playing King Llane Wrynn, has been in a boat-load of stuff. Ben Foster, whose performance as Medivh overshadowed the other actors, I knew from a bit part in a previous X-Men film when he played the reluctant mutant Angel. Much less hairy at that point. Paula Patton, struggling valiantly against prosthetic tusks, played the pseudo-love-interest come plot mechanism Garona. Amongst the CGI characters, only the character of Durotan, clan leader of the Frost Wolves, was rounded out. He was voiced by Toby Kebbel, whom you may know from Shane Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes.
Fimmel’s portrayal of Lothar borrowed more, I think, from Ragnar Lothbrok of Vikings than from the Warcraft canon – while still a formidable warrior, we see a Lothar that is less of a tank whose primary strength is size than a cunning, wily individual, using his intelligence and speed to overcome stronger opponents. This, by the way, mirrors the characterisation of the humans vs the Orcs – while not portrayed as stupid or necessarily brutish, it is made clear that strength is on the side of the Orcs, while tech and tactics are the humans’ forte. The character development during Warcraft I and II was thin, to say the least, but the impression that was given by accompanying art and lore for the character pointed to something a bit more solid than Fimmel’s presentation.
If the characterisation of Anduin Lothar is thin in the game, that of Khadgar is barely there at all. As such, Schnetzer has more or less a clean slate with which to build the character. What we get is something like the audience’s surrogate – amongst all the characters, Schnetzer’s Khadgar is the youngest, an untried wizard with determinedly benign motivation. His ingénue portrayal allows for some humorous moments with his elder superior in the Arts, Medivh, as well as with the half-breed, half-wild Garona. The character isn’t totally inept, as he shows on several occasions, and there is enough in the performance and the story to allow him some personality. Not totally bland, but neither especially striking.
As much as other characters are given space to show their motivations, to react to the narrative as it unfolds, I thought that Foster’s Medivh, the magical guardian of the realm, was the most nuanced. To be fair, his was probably the only grey character in the bunch, so it stands to reason that we get to see the most facets presented. As he showcases so well on Vikings, Travis Fimmel is no stranger to leaning in to the camp when necessary, but I thought it was Ben Foster, who, if he never was quite able to steal the show, always had the right hammy intensity to fit the scene. Whenever he showed up, in whatever mood was fitting, my eyes were drawn to him. There were problems with the presentation of the character, for sure, but they weren’t generally of Foster’s making – but more on that later.
Kebbel’s Durotan pulls a lot from the character of Thrall as developed in the games Warcraft III and World of Warcraft. No big surprise, as Thrall (thpoiler alert) is Durotan’s son, so, if Blizzard intend to continue with these films, it makes sense that they would want to provide a springboard for that character’s development. In this film, however, Durotan acts as a vehicle for the humanisation of the Orcs, if you will. We see the character with his family, his new-born son, as well as leading his people and facing the moral quandaries that that leadership brings. The voice acting, really across the board, though it is in this character that it gets to run the fullest, is sufficient to the task.
Themes and Story: The narrative hews fairly close to the original lore, telling the story of the Orc’s arrival in the world of Azeroth and their first confrontation with the humans of Stormwind, with a few interesting departures. Primary amongst them, to my mind, is the depiction of the Orcs – while in the early games, the Orcs appear to be a fairly unified force, intent on conquest with only shadowy reference to their barren homeworld, Warcraft: The Beginning seems to take up themes we would see later in the series, with the redemption of the Orcs and their presentation as honour-bound, tragic characters more at home in Warcraft III than Warcraft I. In some ways, this is the theft of the son’s arc by the father, with Durotan taking the role his son Thrall would come to play later on – makes me wonder what they intend to do with future films. Otherwise, this is fairly by-the-numbers, and that, I think, is where it runs into a bit of trouble.
As mentioned earlier, there are moments where you can see the struggle playing out between producers and director – the necessity of delivering the narrative elements the fans expect, against the effort to shape this into a film that stands on its own merits. Unfortunately, the hem and haw undercuts both.
Parent child dynamics are, as Kermode rightly highlights, a throughline for the film. On the side of the humans, the primary one is that of Lothar and his son, Callan – a young soldier who has had a fraught relationship with his father since birth, as his mother did not survive it and Anduin blames him. On the other side of the divide, we have the family of Durotan – his pregnant mate Draka, not to be left behind while the first wave of warriors explore the new world, travels through the portal from Draenor against better judgement (to be fair, Durotan was fully aiding and abetting this scheme, so deserves as much blame himself). She goes into labour while between worlds, and the child is stillborn in Azeroth. Gul’dan, the chief warlock of the Orcs, resurrects the child with stolen life energy using the cursed Fel magic, which turns him the characteristic green of a corrupted Orc (damn, that was a nerdy sentence). The family then become a microcosm for all of Orc kind – corrupted by the Fel magic, and yet literally needing it to survive. Depicting familial relationships on both sides does a good job at showing the commonality between humans and Orcs, as well as allowing for deeper motivations vis a vis duty, honour, revenge, etc. And don’t take that as a disparagement of Draka – while definitely merely a supporting character, she’s arguably the biggest badass in the film.
Regrettably, because of the ground to be covered, and the finite space to do it in, these motivations never get to be much more than skin deep. I can understand cutting certain parts of the backstory – it was a good choice to make no mention of the Burning Legion, for example, as well as to gloss Sargeras into Medivh’s story. There were other instances, and perhaps these were bits left on the editing floor, that would have beefed up the interaction between characters satisfactorily. For example, perhaps references to particular events in their shared past, to get the audience more invested in the three-way friendship between King Llane, Lothar, and Medivh, and have them care about its ultimate fate. Doing so would also have given Medivh’s final scene, especially his final line, the weight that it was lacking.
I appreciate what they chose to do with Garona’s character – starting the story in Draenor, the Orc homeworld, and the use of Draenei slave lives to power the Fel magic of Gul’dan, explains Garona’s half-Orc nature – the absence of said explanation always bugged me in the original lore. Alas, that’s about where it stops. In most everything else, she exists to move the plot forward – whether it be in her interactions with Taria, Lothar’s sister and Llane’s Queen-consort, in her position as romantic interest (consummated? unconsummated? the fact that we can’t tell either way is illustrative of my point) for Lothar himself, or even her role in Llane’s ultimate fate. As much as she gets a healthy amount of screen time, and plays several pivotal roles, it’s difficult to see the character as properly rounded – personal motivations are there, but it’s not as if it’s anything but in service to the story.
Art Direction: As much as it was one of my initial worries, the overall aesthetic choices were the saving grace for the film. The CGI is top quality – most importantly, it has a tactility that is the ultimate test for these sorts of films. Interactions between the live-action and the CGI look physical, not superimposed after the fact.
The colour saturation was a good choice – there was definitely room for this to play out like some grim-dark Zack Snyder film, everything blackened iron and brown blood. Instead, they wisely elected to go with an almost cartoony amount of contrast, sticking true to the feel of the games.
This was continued in the costuming – preposterously large pauldrons on the humans, bone fetishes adorning every inch of the Orcs. One misstep, though, was the fabric used in Khadgar’s cloak. I’m not sure what they were trying for, but it looked like a fuzzy bathrobe. This was more than made up for by the depiction of magic – the characteristic blue sigils of the human arcana, the sickly green of the Fel (the life-drained, gooey corpses of the victims of the Fel were a nice touch). It lent an over the top, camp feel that fit the sporadic injections of levity.
After witnessing many – many – ogres literally explode in WC II, I was a bit surprised by the lack of gore in the film. Several characters are eviscerated, more are bashed by hammers and stones and whatnot, but, outside of the odd blood spatter, we never actually see the results of all this violence. I can grant it to them, though – no doubt it was necessary to slip under an age rating, and it is likely the young that will be a big part of the audience on this one.
The music is probably the weakest link in the film, which is not to say that it is necessarily bad. I can understand that the score of the original games would be ill-fitting in a feature film, game music intended to be unobtrusive where film music is meant to augment desired emotional reaction, but it would have been nice to have a bit of a reference to it, even by way of tongue-in-cheek homage. Especially, given the effectiveness, at least in my opinion, of said music in building the feel of the early games – both the overall atmosphere and the distinct character of the races. As it was, I can barely remember the film score. It didn’t stick to the tried and true Wagner/Williams leitmotif approach, nor did it have the sheer size of a Howard Shore composition. It ticked the boxes as far as dissonance and driving rhythm for the martial scenes, something lighter for more emotive ones, but it’s not as if there were any remarkable themes or particularly memorable passages. The lacklustre nature of the score was even more surprising when I learned that the composer is the same person responsible for HBO’s Game of Thrones series, which has nothing but effective, theme-based music.
All in all, I’d say it’s earned the dubious title of best film I’ve seen based on a video game. Here’s hoping the tug-of-war in the editing room doesn’t sink future efforts in the series.