Note: the following review is spoiler free.
I’ve just returned from viewing the film adaptation of Blizzard’s Warcraft franchise. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few weeks, you’re probably already aware that the movie has been confounding critics around the world, which has resulted in its current less than inspiring 27% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
It seems like everyone who’s experienced the iconic video game franchise before has been eager to weigh in on the equity of that rating, with all of the standard boxed fanboy defenses being trotted out in defense of the movie (generally from people who haven’t yet seen it). “Critics don’t know what they’re talking about”, Twitter users around the internet exclaimed. “It only matters what the fans think”, people keep telling me.
While I don’t really agree with either statement – both are eerily reminiscent of rumblings before the DCEU’s natal implosion with the almost universally derided release of Batman vs Superman – I do think they serve as a perfect illustration of the dichotomy determining exactly how receptive viewers will be to the Warcraft movie.
If you’re looking for a well constructed film that masterfully handles the mechanics of good story telling, you definitely aren’t going to find that here. If you’re a fan looking to be caught up in cinematic euphoria of Azeroth brought to life on a 40 foot screen, well, I think you’re in a for a treat. And if you’re one of the myriad of fans caught in the middle, exactly what you’ll take away from the film will take a lot more nuance to discover. Let’s get to it.
To put it simply, Warcraft is the most aesthetically faithful adaptation of any franchise that I’ve ever seen. Every single aspect of the film’s aesthetic presentation is firing on all cylinders to immerse the initiated into the Azeroth they already know and love. From the iconic armor design to the faithful recreation of familiar settings from the World of Warcraft (and there are many of them), from the presence of familiar leitmotifs in the musical score to the completely spot on design of the world’s fantasy races, there is absolutely no way that the aesthetics of the film could be made more true to the identify of the Warcraft franchise.
There are little Easter eggs and nods to the film’s source material throughout its two-hour run time which led to more than a few moments of gleeful recognition on my own part. Warcraft benefits heavily from this kind of intertextual payoff – the visceral reward a viewer feels when they pick up on something requiring knowledge from an outside source. Mentally identifying landmarks or fauna that we as fans recognize from the film’s video game antecedents is undeniably satisfying, but these feelings are separate entirely from whether or not the film tells a good story or even if it tells one well. Intertextuality is a powerful tool, but it works best when used to supplement good delivery, rather than standing in place of it.
And that’s where it starts to come apart, because despite the strength of the Warcraft universe’s mythology, the film adaptation never really manages to bring the narrative to life in a way that’s emotionally compelling.
I’m reminded of the Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythopoeic history of early Middle Earth. The book is more a historical summary than it is a novel. It is an accounting more than it is a tale. You have heroic characters and great deeds that could be woven into a story were the necessary style and flair added in a rewriting, but the Silmarillion isn’t about style, it’s about the exposition of facts: and that’s exactly what Warcraft does. It’s a story about global events happening in a world more than it is about the people who inhabit it, and even though that history is important, it still starts to feel more like history class and less like an enthralling narrative.
While The Lord of the Rings has found widespread commercial appeal as befitting its status as the ‘main event’, it takes a special kind of nerd to get through the Silmarillion, and that’s where I think the Warcraft movie finds itself. But if a Warcraft movie isn’t for the nerds, then who on Earth is it for?
As we often say in gaming, you have to have your fundamentals down, and this, unfortunately, is where Warcraft‘s biggest problems lie. Critics – particularly those not benefiting from any sort of intertextual payoff as a result of prior experience with the IP – picked this up en masse.
The pacing of the film is flat out bizarre, and it’s striking in the film’s earlier scenes. I don’t know if this got better as time went on or if I simply grew accustomed to it, but the movie rapidly transitions from scene to scene, encounter to encounter, with little regard for taking its time and developing anything besides the furtherance of the plot. One minute the characters are at one location, speaking about where they must go next. Then, immediately, they are where they said they needed to go, and before you know it, they’re moving on to the next plot point.
In spite of its length, Warcraft feels more like a sprint than it does a marathon, and the characters suffer as a result. The characters are never really allowed the time to show us who they are, and what little development we get often feels odd and disjointed, as if two lines of dialogue had been specifically set aside out of some unwanted obligation to provide context. As backstory was reluctantly provided for the film’s central characters, I was distinctly impressed with the image of the director as a child eating dinner, the mythos his steak, and the character development the neglected pieces of broccoli he slowly pushed around his plate, taking a bite or two before discarding the vegetables under the table when his parents weren’t looking.
This neglect was most apparent at certain points in the film when I could tell I was supposed to be feeling – and believe me I wanted to – but when it came down to it, I just didn’t feel the attachment to the characters that I required to do so.
The Bottom Line
So does Warcraft deserve the 27% rating currently on Rotten Tomatoes? Is it really that bad? Absolutely not.
There’s a grandiosity to Warcraft‘s presentation of epic fantasy that needs to be respected. It took something deeply nerdy and it didn’t try to ditch that at all. The film basks in the trappings of its out-of-vogue high fantasy setting far more than anything I’ve ever seen on this budget and scale. This film isn’t grim. It’s not dark. It’s not gritty. It doesn’t bother trying to ground itself in realism or put on airs pretending to be something that it’s not. It boldly basks in the light of everything that Warcraft is and in a way, it really is awesome as a result.
Warcraft isn’t a great movie, but it isn’t really that bad of a movie either. Where previous video game adaptations have failed by not respecting their source material enough, Warcraft clearly holds its own in incredibly high esteem. If you’ve played World of Warcraft and consider yourself a fan of the Warcraft franchise, you probably should go see this movie. It’s visually phenomenal, true to the spirit of the world it faithfully depicts, and while it’s not a cinematic masterpiece, you’ll probably still have a good time.
Despite the film’s flaws, I do find myself looking forward to the prospect of follow-up films in the Warcraft universe, and I think that’s as strong an endorsement as any. Let’s hope they actually get made.