Hollywood still seems to view video game adaptations as an anomaly — some unattainable force that it is unable to harness and use for its own gain. This disconnect doesn’t go both ways as video games have figured out how to incorporate cinematic qualities into their own, for example, I recently played through Uncharted 4, which may be one of the movie-influenced video games I have ever seen.
It is common knowledge that these adaptations usually fall flat and shift into obscurity soon afterwards and that seems to be the destiny of Warcraft, the adaptation of the massively popular multiplayer game and the latest film from director Duncan Jones. It was a curious choice to see Jones, who had crafted two spellbinding science fiction films in Moon and Source Code, pick to make his blockbuster debut with a seemingly no-win project. Especially when one would think he would have a shot at something such as Star Wars, which possibly would’ve welcomed in such a talented sci-fi director with open arms.
Instead, he chose to forge his own path and the end product is a flawed mixture of both creativity and ambition that one would have to salute its attempt even when it didn’t come together completely.
Warcraft begins with the orcs, who are led by the sage Gul’dan (Daniel Wu). He has used his magic to open a portal to the human world, which will allow the orcs to relocate since their own planet is dying and becoming more and more inhospitable. They cross to the other side and begin a pillage of human villages, which does not sit well with Durotan (Toby Kebbell), an orc chieftain. On the other side are the humans and the warrior Lothar (Travis Fimmel), who has witnessed the arrival of the orcs and attempts to persuade his king, Llane Wrynn (Dominic Cooper), to bring all of the neighboring forces together in order to strike the portal and keep more orcs from entering their lands.
For most of the first acts, Warcraft falters in establishing an identity for itself — hobbling through creative duty towards the genre in trying to stop and allow the audience to understand the world and its inhabitants, and just forging ahead and hoping that they can catch on as the plot moves forward. It seems to ditch the first method, selecting the latter to continue on into the second and final acts of the film with a polished confidence that begs well for the future of Jones’ career in blockbuster filmmaking.
This selection does isolate this film from a more naive audience to the source material — not just because of the creatures and myths being presented on the screen, but the fact that we are expected to find humanity between the both of them. The surrogate of that is in the form of Garona (Paula Patton), a half orc/half human that is imprisoned by the invading orcs and brought in by the humans as a possible upper hand in defeating them.
Warcraft comes from a different field of video games as past adaptations such as Resident Evil, Prince of Persia, or Lara Croft, which seem destined for a bigger screen. This one comes from a more interpersonal genre of comradery that requires a sense of scope and intuition that most audiences aren’t ready to commit to. For the most part, the film feels like it is a fitting adoption of the game, but it lacks in really committing to being a cinematic equivalent to the world and strategy that feel so hand-in-hand to the game.
Most of the action feels like something pulled from either Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings and does lack the ambition a lot of the story goes for. The battles are epic in scale, but small in stature —carrying no weight to the emotional battles Jones and co-writer Charles Levitt are setting up.
This is where Warcraft sets itself apart not only from video game adaptations, but blockbusters in the extended universe sphere. The movie chooses to set-up future installments in the series, but in a way that feels earned — unlike many of the recent superhero films that are more interested in winking at the audience in order to develop a juvenile squeal rather than any sort of substantial character trajectory. Here, the characters feel like they’re going in directions that are both interesting and worth re-visiting in another installment.
Even more interesting, the ending does not feel like a victory for either side. I can see what got Jones interested in this project because where most superhero or blockbuster movies today are more interested in defeating the villain by any means necessary in order to satisfy some pre-ordained structure of storytelling, Warcraft is unafraid to not only keep its villains alive, but to slay some of its main figures to add weight to its future set-ups.
Ironically, this also betrays its video game roots, which is a game structured around setting up raids and battles in order to have one side reign supreme and victorious by the end. Warcraft ignores that and I like it more for it. The film has its holes, and the plot seeps with cliche, but there is something admirable about Warcraft and the work by Duncan Jones. The film is weird and wild, but it comes from a place of pure adventure and creativity and that isn’t something we should dispel — video game or not.