Warcraft (2016), a recap (part 1)

NOTE: This article is a work in progress.
Please check back soon for more installments!

Why are so many video game movies so bad?

According to Rotten Tomatoes, the best-reviewed video game adaptation in history was this year’s Tomb Raider reboot, favored by a crushing 51% of critics. We’ve been at this for twenty-five years now. It seems as though, in terms of mere probability, a good one would have accidentally happened by now. Why is it nigh-impossible to adapt a video game into an entertaining motion picture?

If an answer exists, it must consider fundamental questions about what both media are trying to accomplish, how one expresses meaning through them, how creators and consumers define themselves in relation to them, the nature of authorship, and all sorts of woolly-headed English-major questions that no one likes. (I’m an English major, so I get to say that.)

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If none other than Roger Ebert couldn’t get a good handle on these questions, I don’t know how I’m expected to, but I’ll give it a shot. A couple of quick-and-dirty takes, admittedly from someone who hasn’t kept current with games since the heyday of the Wii, are as follows:

  • Video game adaptations suffer the same sort of compressive pressure as adaptations of, say, novels; simply put, there aren’t many video games that are over and done with in two hours, and the ones that are probably wouldn’t make for a very good movie.
  • Video game adaptations suffer under the tyranny of low expectations that genres like horror experience; they get locked in a self-perpetuating cycle of schlock where the past history leads studios not to devote a lot of resources or talent to them, so they turn out shitty, and those that turn out unexpectedly good are either underestimated or backhandedly held up as a movie that succeeded despite its genre.
  • Video games often lack the depth of narrative that even the shallowest movie offers, for the simple reason that the experience is meant to be collaborative. The game creates a universe, a set of rules, and a framework for an experience whose trajectory you, the player, ultimately determine. Even the simplest games have an uncountable number of possible ways to play. You could play Super Mario Bros. a billion times and not jump in all the same places twice. When you remove one side of the equation, turning a multifarious, collaborative experience into a fixed, mono-directional one, it’s tricky to make it satisfying. Very few conversations benefit from being turned into lectures.
  • Video games are vapid, puerile entertainment for the immature and any movie adaptation is necessarily going to reflect that. (Ooh, spicy!)

With this in mind, I turn my attention to Warcraft. These days, the Warcraft series is mainly known for World of Warcraft, a massive online roleplaying fantasy game responsible for billions of collective hours being stolen from hapless Skinner-box rats worldwide. But the Warcraft fictional universe began its existence twenty-four years ago as real-time strategy games (predating Command and Conquer and Age of Empires, both of which I played a lot back in the day), winding their way through a storyline about humans and orcs from another dimension waging a war for control of the fantasy world of Azeroth.

It was this epic tale that Duncan Jones (David Bowie’s son and writer/director of the excellent sci-fi anxiety dream Moon) turned into the most boring fucking movie I’ve ever seen in my life. I hardly ever nap (my industrious midwestern DNA makes me break out in hives if I’m in bed anytime between 9 AM and 9 PM) and I fell asleep the first two times I tried to watch Warcraft. The general experience could be summed up as a trailer for a free-to-play iOS game called Clash of Might or something, which fell into a puddle of radioactive goo and metastasized into a two-hour monster. It’s just so slick and bloodless, like the algorithmically-generated movies we’ll probably be seeing in about a decade or so. There’s nothing earthy or tactile to it, nothing to grab hold of. The worldbuilding is lazy. The dialogue is platitudinous. The characters are paper-thin. It’s a total write-off, a complete wank of a movie.

A movie experience on par with a make-out session with this guy.

We open on a dusty plain. A man in armor kneels down to pick up a shield from a corpse that’s been a corpse for so long that there’s just a clean skull left. He bangs his shield and sword together in a 300-inspired badass gesture.

The next shot is wide and contains the silhouette of an enormous green-skinned orc. There aren’t any other bodies in sight—only dead tree stumps and a banner. The context of this scene will never be explained. The orc picks up a gnarly warhammer/ax/thing.

“I MacGyvered this out of an ’88 Cavalier.”

A gravelly voiceover begins. “There’s been a war between orcs and humans for as long as anyone can remember,” says the voice. “But there was once a time when we did not even know who our enemy was, or what that evil green magic, the Fell, had done to us.”

The camera pivots to somewhere over the orc’s right shoulder, and stays there while the orc stares the human down and shuffles forward to meet him. The whole shot looks extremely video-gamey, but it doesn’t evoke the game itself—World of Warcraft does offer a first-person perspective, but only the mentally defective actually play it that way (source: my World of Warcraft-addicted former roommate). So this visual doesn’t really constitute a Warcraft homage so much as an homage to the general concept of video games. Awesome. Off to a great start.

The human rushes forward with sword and shield at the ready, until the orc is actually upon him, at which point he screams, lowers his sword, and cowers behind his shield as he’s battered to death in one blow. It’s pretty hilarious.

“But in the beginning, how could we have known?” the voiceover continues. “What choice did we have?” The scene shifts to the present [?] day, in a medium shot of an orc named Durotan, performed in motion capture by Toby Kebbell. Kebbell is one of a growing class of actors who are mainly known for performing under heavy costuming and/or motion capture. I don’t mean this as a dig at him. You need to have both a face recognizable behind a wall of pixels and the acting skills necessary to convey emotion when most of what your face does is hidden, in this case, behind two gigantic underbite tusks that look like they’d be painful to talk around. Kudos to Toby for landing in this niche.

“Goo I habf shumfing i’ my cheef?”

“Our world was dying, and I had to find my clan a new home.” Durotan is revealed to be staring at his sleeping wife, Draka (Anna Galvin), and I’m pissed off already. They made Durotan a huge craggy beast with a chest, neck, and wrists of Liefeldian proportions, but Draka has a toned but normal-looking body, a relatively human face, and fangs that look like they could actually fit in someone’s mouth. She’s the only prominent female orc in the movie, and the fact that the character design team were clearly told to make sure that she’s still fuckable really distracts from the fantasy.

Draka wakes up and tells her husband to stop being such a creep while she’s trying to sleep. The camera pans out to reveal she’s got a little green bun in the oven. They get to talking about some voyage they’re determined to take together, so that Durotan can be there for the birth of his baby. She’s not supposed to be going. “Can you hide your fat belly?” Durotan asks. She slugs him and says, “Better than you can hide your fat head!” Ah, so orc women get sensitive about their size during pregnancy. I can feel the fantasy transporting me away!

The next morning, all the orc clans are called for a gathering. We know because big corny alpenhorns are playing. Also, because Durotan and another orc are talking about how many clans are gathered. There are stacks and stacks of cages filled with skinny blue horned people. A shaggy-bearded, cloaked orc wizard named Guldan (Daniel Wu) is dragging a chained slave girl (Paula Patton) who looks even more normal than Draka. They didn’t mo-cap her at all; she pretty much just has green skin and two needly fangs. It’s heavily implied, but never confirmed, that she’s half-human, though I don’t know how that would even work, because humans and orcs supposedly never came into contact before now.

Wow, conditions at Fyre Fest were even worse than we were told.

One of the blue-horned people grabs the slave girl and says something in a foreign language, which she translates for Guldan: “She begs you to free her son.”

“But I need him,” Guldan says, “I need all of them.” I don’t think this guy is up to any good. Call it a hunch.

The orcs are gathered in front of a gigantic doorway, which is beginning to light up around the edges with green light. Green magic is always evil. Remember that, because it’ll come up a lot.

Guldan stands before all the orcs. “The fuel for my magic is life. We only have enough prisoners to send through our strongest warriors. But that will be enough. The enemy is weak. When we arrive, we will take them as fuel!”

If you guessed at this point that Guldan’s use of evil kill-everything magic could maybe, possibly, be the reason the orcs’ world is dying, pat yourself on the back. It takes Durotan another hour to make the connection.

“Are you the Keymaster?”

Guldan promises to open the portal again and bring through all the orcs, and without further ado, he begins sucking the life out of the assembled prisoners in the form of tendrils of ghostly smoke. After they’re dead, he spits back the life energy toward the portal, and it opens up as orcs rush in to enter it. A bastardized version of the Isengard theme from Lord of the Rings plays. In D minor, the epic-est of all keys. (Composition credits Ramin Djawadi, best known for arranging ’90s indie songs for a tinny cowboy piano on HBO’s Westworld.)

Durotan implores Draka to let him go first. I don’t know why. If something goes wrong, it’s not like there’s any way he can let her know to stay away. She waits a couple seconds after he enters, and steps through…

…where she enters a muted, floaty tesseract-type dimension…

…and immediately goes into labor! Drat, what luck. Durotan sees her, swims backwards and grabs frantically for her hand. For some reason, they’re suddenly the only two orcs in the entire tesseract. Where are all the orcs that were getting into the portal before and after and during their entrance? Why is this movie’s continuity falling apart already?

Durotan fails to grab Draka, and then… some kind of… stuff happens, and then Draka’s safely on the other side of the gate. She crawls around on her hands and knees, rips off the metal plate she was using to hide her belly (psst! you weren’t fooling anybody!) and groans in distress.

An orc who reminds me of Macho Man Randy Savage grabs Durotan. “With child?” he demands. “You bring that wachook into my war band?” No, we don’t ever get to find out what wachook means, but it sounds rude.

“Dude, shh. If HR hears you say that… you’re on your last write-up, is all I’m saying.”

Guldan lumbers over to Draka, and uses his wizard-school-mandated midwife training to deliver her baby. After a good twenty seconds of mess-free labor, the baby comes, and it’s blue and struggling for breath. Guldan looks up, espies a deer, sucks its life force out, and spits it into the baby, who begins breathing in earnest and crying. “A new warrior for the Horde!” Guldan shouts, and the other orcs cheer.

“A new warrior? I dunno, he looks a little small.”

Guldan’s rescuing Durotan’s child with evil magic seems like the kind of thing that would figure heavily into the plot. Like, maybe Durotan feels a conflicted loyalty to Guldan despite his evil deeds. Or maybe Durotan has trouble connecting with his child, because it owes its existence to evil magic he hates. In actuality, the whole thing is never really brought up again.

Enter the movie’s title.

Warcraft is neither a war nor a craft. Discuss.

Next time: We meet the… ugh… humans.

Multi-Part Article: Warcraft: a recap

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  • Urks

    Always interesting to see another take on this movie (By the way: I like it despite its faults, but that’s beside the point).
    However, I have to say that so far your non-gamerish English major approach to tackle the fundamental mysteries behind the pitfalls of video game movies seems to have some problems. At least in my humble, gamerish opinion. ;)

    Your approach so far might not be quite as fresh as you think it is. At least parts of it sound awfully familiar too me (not that such is unreasonable – hardly anyone would disagree that the movie has some serious and obvious flaws). E.g. the tusk jokes that nearly every bad movie review appears to harp on. Sigh – come on, don’t you think orcs make jokes about puny human teeth? Now I could argue all day or point out the perfectly reasonable phenomenom of sexual dimorphism regarding female orc tusks …. but let’s not dwell on scientific details.

    Let’s get to the big one:

    Your quick-and-dirty takes on the video game movie mystery itself sound both familiar and a bit wobbly, though I don’t know how serious your points are supposed to be.

    If they are are not, you are likely already aware that your first point (comparing video games to novels) and the last one (the puerile entertainment bit that might have been a bit tongue in cheek but otherwise is indeed likely to draw some righteous wrath from gamerish readers ) do not entirely match up.

    As – despite your claim to be largely non-gamerish- you have picked up a surprising amount of knowledge about the distinction between Warcraft and WoW (that is a bit of solid research on your side, I have to say)- and, again, considering your first point, I guess you are aware that there are indeed video games that do have some sort of story.

    However, this is where your third point, that I’ve seen a lot of non-gamerish reviewers of video game movies make, falls flat.
    Granted there is obviously a bit of a valid point here. Games are interactive, which will be an obviously missing element in the transition to movie / novel. But we’re not talking about Super Mario any longer as you have hopefully already realized.

    And while I love the Warcraft (yes, the name doesn’t make a great deal of sense) universe, this is not restricted to it. I won’t even claim that Warcraft ist the best example of video game storytelling.

    Anyway, is there supposed to be some sort of magical barrier that prevents games from having a story worthy of being accepted by more sophisticated spirits? (Don’t worry, this is not me in a rage due to wounded pride – I’m just teasing.)

    Seriously, think about it! Video Games are, fundamentally, just another medium for storytelling. You can write a deep, epic essay about the plights of modern society in the introduction of your game, if you really like to, or weave it skillfully into the plot. Not my cup of tea, but feasible.

    You can even tell a compelling story – and whether it is interactive or not ( and not every game is really all that interactive), it is not technically impossible to use that in a movie / book.

    Probably the most glaring faults of the Warcraft movie is that it does not really take the time to establish everything properly. That’s not the fault of the game universe behind it and any review that repeats the hoary old cliché ‘What story? It’s a video game movie. Duh.’ is going to receive a stern waggling from my fingers. Just a warning.

    Well, this is not my review, and I’ll end here. Curious to read the rest of your text, though I expect it’ll only go downhill for the movie from this point. After all, you are getting to the stupid little humans. ;)

    As a personal favor: please don’t indulge too much in silly comparisons to Lord of the Rings as far too many reviews like to do. Orcs, elves and dwarves in Fantasy are, in my opinion, like laser pistols and aliens in Science Fiction. Not every book/movie/game / whatever has them, but those that do, are not necessarily cheaper because of it nor are the others automatically more original because they do not.

  • Kradeiz

    Expanding on the “Why are video game movies bad?” question, The Cosmonaut Variety Hour just did a video on that. He touched on some of the same answers like little to no plot and the amount of time to get through them, as well as the interactive aspect that just can’t exist in a movie and is a big part of what makes so many video games enjoyable and compelling.

    • Urks

      Again, I think these kind of answers may contain some element of truth but are mainly deceptively convincing for people with very limited experiences with video games – especially modern ones.

      There are a considerable number of games with a strong narrative. Far stronger, in my opinion, than a majority of movies can come up with. You mention the large amount of playtime required for some games – that is true … and actually one of the great advantages of story driven games. They can take the necessary time to develop a complex story – which sometimes makes them more similar (and perhaps more fitting) to a tv series than a movie.

      The genre of the game, by the way, tends to play an important role in the quality and amount of story. Arcade games, which are usually turned into dumb action movies, are – for example – indeed not exactly prone to deliver a background for terrific tales.

      A sizable number of adventures and role playing games, on the other hand, definitely could provide them.

      As others have commented in regard to critics of the Warcraft story, Warcraft 1 is actually originally the weakest game of its series in terms of plot, though the lore has been fleshed out since its original release.

      As to the interactivity issue … again:
      I think this is an issue that’s usually over-emphasized. Of course the gaming element is missing in an adaptation.. It’s a movie, not a game – no one disputes that. You can’t smell or touch the pages of a book in a movie, either, But if the game has a notable background story, you CAN adapt that. A story is a story, after all. If the game offers different choices, pick one of them. If the game is linear – as many are – even easier.

      • Xander

        I think Mortal Kombat (the original movie) did this really well. They managed to adapt the lore to the screen very well, and the fights were well choreographed for the most part. I haven’t seen a video game adaption I’ve liked as much since then, but the first Tomb Raider came close; then again, I’ve never played the games, so I had nothing to compare it to.

        • Tyler Peterson

          Mortal Kombat is probably my personal favorite, but that I’m fully prepared for that to change if John Woo ever quits fucking around and makes Metroid already.

  • Xander

    I’ll say one thing about the movie: they got the Orcs appearances right. It’s hilarious how different the male and female orcs look.

  • Michael Weyer

    Read the great book Lights, Camera, Game Over! and insightful how so many writers and producers go in really wanting to do justice and bring these games to life but nine times out of ten, it’s massive studio interference that ruins it.

  • holydoubleidentity

    I can’t wait for the discussion about the “whose nephew was this” wizard/mage guy

    • ppi23

      +HolydoubleIdentity — Hey…Weren’t you wearing a Pope hat going into that broom closet?

  • ppi23

    Caption for 2nd from Last Photo—

    “Behold…SIMBA”