Warcraft (2016)

So I Watched: Warcraft (2016)

Remember the major motion hit Warcraft? From last year? The one with the orcs and, uh, other stuff?

No?

Warcraft is an amazingly forgettable film. It exemplifies generic Hollywood fantasy. It has its moments, like most films, but otherwise the entire experience of watching it will just fade away, out of your mind and out of your life, in the minutes afterwards. There’s just so little for your brain to attach to, to hold onto. I had to write this ASAP because I knew what would happen.

Feel like a hit of amnesia? Watch Warcraft.

(Spoilers, for those who care.)

Warcraft (2016)
Warcraft (Screenshot: Legendary Pictures)

Though I play a lot of video-games myself, the Warcraft universe isn’t one I know well. I played through Warcraft 3’s campaign, its expansion, and I played World of Warcraft (poorly) for a couple of years in highschool, but its lore and overall story never stuck in any significant way.

Arthas and Thrall were pretty cool guys. Arthas was a frost guy, with a sword. Outlands was a … place, through a portal?

?

For the games, their reliance on Tolkien tropes was likely as much a strength as a weakness: a fantasy world with immediately identifiable traits, all the races and monsters you expect, in a marketplace that wasn’t completely flooded by generic fantasy. It’s a world you’ll understand within the few minutes of an opening cinematic, the player fully prepared to just dive in, confident they know everything they need to know to enjoy the game.

But the film pushes these tropes out into the open and made far more obvious, made as loud as its hyper-saturated colour pallette.

For one thing, there’s very little worldbuilding. The nature of the orcs and their situation is established well enough – they would have to be, considering they come from another dimension, through a portal made of a plot-specific type of magic (it’s weird) – but Azeroth isn’t. Azeroth is apparently ‘generic fantasy land’ since it establishes nothing else. ‘Still alive’ seems to be its defining trait: there are still trees and rivers and the usual natural world – nothing unusual there – there’s a monarchy of some sort, and an Alliance, there’s dwarves and other (currently-irrelevant) races, there’s some sort of magical Guardian role (which is fleshed out well enough, I suppose). Overall, Azeroth seems to be doing fine? And that’s it.

But the problem stems from a lack of dimension. We’ve heard of all these traits before, such generic, broad and simple concepts that you immediately identify them either with the fantasy genre as a whole. It’s vapid and uninteresting, and does nothing to convince you otherwise. It’s A Fantasy Setting.

Then the film’s entire aesthetic amplifies this further.

Warcraft’s entire look reminded me, very early on, of the Star Wars prequels: technically strong, but, through an almost total reliance on CGI, visually overbearing. The real-life, live-action actors – i.e. the humans, and that one green-painted human who’s apparently an orc – stand in stark contrast to the rest of the film. The colour grading makes this even worse: Warcraft is so bright and saturated – I assume to match the games and their cinematics, to some extent – that it’s jarring. It makes the difference between live-action and CGI so stark and obvious to the point of distraction.

An early scene with Travis Fimmel’s character Ragnar (I’m not going to waste my time looking his actual name up) and a dwarf stood out especially: the entire scene outside the actor and a prop (I think) is totally computer rendered. It’s like a fan inserted themselves into one of Blizzard’s WoW cinematics and looks decidedly unnatural, unreal.

Together with the cliched aesthetic, Warcraft comes across as a very superficial film.

The very-Americanised accents, like the colour palette, help this ‘jarring’ effect. I understand the trope of British accents for anything fantasy-based or remotely medieval is silly in itself, but these Hollywood accents just amplify the dissonance. As a viewer, you’re given neither the detail or an appropriate atmosphere to believe this world as an authentic one. It’s just a series of CGI backdrops and CGI characters, the skeleton of a generic fantasy world, and little else. With modern, commercial accents, there’s just no way to make that leap of disbelief and see the world of Warcraft as anything ‘real’.

Like all fictional worlds that have existed for years or decades, I’m sure there’s something interesting and distinct in there, and I’ll admit that the origins of the orcs are great when they’re placed in a sympathetic role, but Warcraft doesn’t showcase any of that – except for the orc part, which is easily the strongest part of the film. Everything else – the humans (and their characters), the magic, the society and politics of the world, the rest of the Azeroth races – are barely touched on at all, with only the details that are immediately relevant to the plot made clear.

As a result, through the lens of a generic fantasy film, a lot of the weight is just absent. Its plot, its characters, its overall world: there’s little (again, outside the orcs) to really ground you in the world of Azeroth or its people, to weigh it down in a sense of reality, to give it dimension. Little to connect to.

Because I keep saying it, I’ll just dedicate a paragraph to it: the orc-focused parts of the film were by far the strongest – in plot, in characters, in performance. The quality of these scenes – when Gul’dan revives Durotan’s stillborn child, the conversation between Durotan’s besty and Gul’dan, the fight between Durotan and Gul’dan – stand out so much that the orcs feel like the only reason the film exists at all. The rest of the film feels like it exists by necessity, just so those scenes can exist. I mean, Travis Fimmel is amazing and basically carries his role from Vikings wholesale into his role here, but everything concerning the humans – including the very human-y orc character – is, even without the comparison, vapid and dull.

But while it’s a failure in several ways, Warcraft is a step in the right direction for video-game adaptations for one reason: by highlighting and adapting a core, relatable story from the series, rather than trying to somehow, impossibly, adapt a game into a film.

Games are, at their core, an experiential medium. They’re designed and built for interactivity, their stories and worlds built for gameplay, whatever that gameplay is. Some games focus almost entirely on the story – see Telltale and Quantic Dream titles – but they’re ultimately about the choice (or illusion of choice), too. The quality of the story matters less than the engagement it draws from players. Telltale’s a good example: their endings are typically the same regardless; it’s the journey and provoked emotions that matter.

I’m no expert, but films are, at their core, about the storytelling – whether that’s in the story itself, in the performances, or in the experience they offer (action, horror, or whatever). Warcraft, for all its faults, is an example of a video-game adaptation that tries to adapt a core story – a two-sided conflict in a fantasy setting – into a film, rather than all the gameplay mechanics that facilitated that story in the first place. At the very least, I admire the film for that.

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