Celebrating Warcraft

Warcraft: The Beginning, the film adaptation of the video game Warcraft: Orcs and Humans (1994) is now in the cinemas. It was ravaged by the mainstream press; at the time of writing it has a rating of 27% on Rotten Tomatoes, making it not just ‘rotten’ but rancid. The Herald Sun called it a ‘dull, soulless slurry of sucktastic SFX’. For The Guardian, watching the film was ‘like being bludgeoned by the war hammers of a thousand orcs’. One journalist working for the BBC was so angry he abruptly ended an interview with the director because he dared to defend his own film. To quote King Theoden in Lord of the Rings, ‘What can men do against such reckless hate?’

I went into the film expecting it to be a mess, but one that I would probably enjoy nonetheless, as I’m a fan of the video game series. Instead, I watched a film that I not only enjoyed immensely, but also considered a highly valuable and important contribution to the fantasy genre.

There’s been many attempts to make video game movies, and most of them have been terrible. Warcraft itself has been stuck in development hell for about a decade.

Still, studios keep trying to crack the formula that would translate the huge popularity of video game franchises into box office success, and Warcraft director Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code) was keen to crack the much harder artistic formula: how to translate a story from a video game, shaped by gameplay restrictions, into a cinematic story, unrestricted by anything except for length. Jones hoped that Warcraft would ‘right the wrongs’ of previous video game movies that had failed to make this leap.

For some journalists, the odds were stacked against Jones before he’d even started; The Radio Times questioned whether a video game movie could ever work, asking ‘can this kind of narrative really compete with the original version, where the adventure is [the audience’s] to choose and experience?’

The Radio Times suggests that game narratives are always interactive and defined by player actions, whilst film narratives are only passively observed, and never the twain shall meet. In fact most video games borrow heavily from the cinema.

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The term ‘cutscene’, describing a narrative that that the player watches with no control, originated in Maniac Mansion (1987) by LucasFilm Games, the game-making arm of George Lucas’s film company. Eight years later the same company produced The Dig (1995), based on an idea by Steven Spielberg with effects by Industrial Light and Magic. The game is a mixture of player controlled action and ‘cutscene’ narrative: part film, part interactive adventure. The idea that games and films wouldn’t mesh well because of different narrative expectations is therefore a false one; there are many games that are very close to being films.

Around this time Warcraft Adventures: Lord of the Clans was being developed. The game was never released but we know that it would have featured gameplay similar to The Dig: a linear story that progresses through cut-scenes triggered by interaction from the player.  The more recent World of Warcraft games (2004-) do not follow this narrative model, reserving cutscenes only to introduce the content or to cover a major plot development, but these cutscenes are individual movies in their own right, some rivaling anything produced by Pixar or Dreamworks in their technical quality.

The Radio Times was not the only publication to criticise the Warcraft film based on a misconception of the games. The Telegraph thought that World of Warcraft was ‘where millions of gamers save the world every month.’ In fact we do no such thing: we explore the world; we fight in it; we hear, watch, and read narrative in it, and sometimes we feel that we have influenced that narrative. Occasionally the story might be about our characters saving the world, but to say that WoW about saving the world all the time gives the wrong impression about the game.

What I think fans of Warcraft wanted in a movie was not a big-screen version of themselves saving the world — as that is not really the common experience of playing WoW, nor where its quality lies — but rather a big-screen version of the world and characters they have come to know through years of living in a world and experiencing its stories and characters.

This mistaken idea about the nature of the Warcraft game experience perhaps explains why so many critics argued the film lacked focus. As Vanity Fair put it:

Warcraft’s biggest problem is that it seems to change its mind about what it’s about almost from scene to scene. First, it’s the story of an orc and his quest to protect his family, then it’s about Lothar protecting his kingdom, then it’s about shifting orc power dynamics, then it’s about a good king and his good queen, then it’s about mage-on-mage action, then . . . I don’t know.

What Vanity Fair considered indecisive, I thought of as comprehensive, and something the film should have done: translating the world of Warcraft (no pun intended), with its multiple factions and viewpoints, into a high fantasy adventure film.

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Of course you can argue that even if it were intentional, it wasn’t done very well. All I can say is: it worked for me. I never felt confused or bewildered, but I’m sure it helped that I didn’t go into the film expecting to see one side’s story, or follow one character exclusively.

As I wrote at the beginning of this article, I enjoyed the Warcraft film immensely. This is partly because I had the right expectations. But it is also because the film felt new and exciting. Jones managed to refresh fantasy tropes that have become cliched and worn-out. Travelling through a magic portal was like swimming underwater; magic spells created spirals of blue runes in the air; eyes glowed blue when incantations were cast (a detail taken from Warcraft II; I remember it disturbing me as a child, when I played the game twenty years ago). This is high fantasy, but not as we’ve seen it before.

Even established plot devices were shaken up. The language barrier is usually ignored by fantasy narratives, even though characters from different worlds are unlikely to speak a common language. Here, it was acknowledged and navigated through with the help of a translator character, emphasising the cultural and racial differences of the orcs and humans.

The plot was also refreshing. J.R.R. Tolkien treated his invaders as monstrous and evil. George R.R. Martin treats his invaders as monstrous and evil but focuses on how evil and monstrosity also exist in human members of established groups. Warcraft treats the monstrous invaders as neither totally evil nor good but rather as developed characters with their own motivations and codes of morality. Although we can trace the roots of this concept back to pre-Warcraft fantasy, Warcraft is the best exemplifier of these types of of orcs, developing them from Warcraft II (1995) onwards into the community-orientated, morally-complex individuals we see in the latest film.

Durotan from Warcraft and Azog from Peter Jackson's version of Tolkien's The Hobbit
Durotan from Warcraft and Azog from Peter Jackson’s version of Tolkien’s The Hobbit

Bringing these orcs to the cinema is valuable for artistic reasons, adding variety to what we already have, and it also promotes important ideas: that not all ugly, misshapen beings are monsters; even invaders have a homeland; just because a society is different does not mean that is evil. To help avoid demonising outsider groups in our own world, we might begin by considering how cinema and literature treat outsider groups in other worlds.

So if Warcraft has these refreshing and important elements, why all the hate from most Western critics? Perhaps the meta-narrative , that video game movies will never work and are alway poor quality, was too strong, and too difficult to write past. Some critics picked up on a different meta-narrative: that Jones was making a film about parenthood, showing the film to his father shortly before he died, whilst expecting to become a father himself in the same month as the film opened. The BBC’s Mark Kermode identified parenthood as an important theme in the film:

I found myself actually being emotionally engaged in it, because what the story has is a recurrent theme of parents and children; of male and female being equally powerful; a film in which parenthood and parent-child strifes are equally balanced across the opposing armies.

Some of the other critics seemed unable to get passed mocking the film, and either ignored the film’s themes or decided it had none: as Indiewire wrote, parts of the film were simply ‘fun to mock’. The New Yorker thought the character names ‘Varian, Medivh, and Halforcen’ sounded like ‘medications, to be taken twice daily after meals’, and The Telegraph argued that people would only enjoy the film if they delighted in ‘names like “Orgrim Doomhammer”’. Yet these names are not more ridiculous  than the widely-accepted Frodo Baggins or Mount Doom.

It’s a shame that Warcraft received such scathing criticism. Not because it hurts the commercial success of the film, which has done particularly well in China, but because the bad reviews reflect a wider problem: that many critics seem to be set against video game movies because of misconceptions and an unwillingness to engage with what a video game movie might be trying to achieve.

Warcraft was not a silly film for me; it was a refreshing take on high fantasy with some significant ideas on monsters and parenthood. In making the film, Jones has also taken a bold step: towards giving video game narratives the respect they deserve.

Further Reading:

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