The Anticipated: Warcraft

In All, Movies by David

It’s been a little while here since the last The Anticipated. There was a lull with the movies on the list, and some of the films have just been hard to find, but that has now finally changed with the release of Warcraft. Video game movies have had let’s just say a troubled history, which has made it very hard for anyone to really take them seriously. Warcraft, though, looked to be different. Big budget, up and coming director in Duncan Jones, the support of Legendary and Universal, and a rabid fanbase all over the world that has been waiting years for this film to exist. This film has all the ingredients to really steer video game movies in the right direction, especially with another video game film in Assassin’s Creed ready to come out later this year. Of course, we have all heard versions of this same story before, and video game films have pretty consistently let everyone down, so I guess the question is, does Warcraft live up to the hype?

Spoilers Ahead

Warcraft (June 10th, 2016)

How was it? 

Well-made, well-intentioned trash. That’s really the best way I can describe it. The visuals of the film were mostly rather good, and Duncan Jones did some solid work with his direction, but the script is garbage and the character work is rather shoddy. The biggest issue with this film is that it basically was telling a version of the story that was a prequel to the actual game story of World of Warcraft. This really seemed to hamstring the film creatively, as there was only so much that could be done with the story considering the narrative parameters set by the original game. They meant that it was almost impossible to set up meaningful stakes in this movie. It also made the film really feel as though it was following a paint-by-the-numbers story line that offered few engaging twists. Nor did the world building really make up for it, as Warcraft struggled to show off what made its fantasy world anything but generic. Overall? I was underwhelmed.

You know, I really wish the dwarves hadn’t simply disappeared for most of this movie.

My biggest problem with the film is that it utterly failed in its attempt to give the audience reasons to root for both sides of the conflict, which is supposed to be one of the strongest points of WoW. Maybe this is just because we only really meet the humans in the Alliance, but the kingdom of Azeroth comes off heroic at every turn. Even when it is revealed that all of this conflict between the Horde and the Alliance was caused in large part by Medivh (Ben Foster) becoming consumed by evil Fell magic, that only makes him look terrible and no one else. Especially considering that Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) is still in charge of the Horde by the end of the film, and well, that dude is made of evil built upon evil mixed with hellish death magic. It’s hard to be on the Orcs’ side when they are led by a clearly terrible being who is now a tool of Fell magic and has already destroyed one planet. This would not be an issue if this was supposed to be a clear cut good guy/bad guy conflict, but as already stated, it really isn’t. Orgrim (Robert Kazinsky) is sympathetic, and if he was leading the Horde by the end of the film and simply fighting for his people’s survival than that could work, but instead he is dead, and we are left with one force that is clearly more heroic than the other, which further makes this film fit the mold of generic fantasy.

Then of course there is the issue that this film somehow seems too tailored to both the WoW and the general audiences at the same time, which is almost as impressive as it is depressing. So much of this film’s actual story and lore is super dense and hard to follow if you have not already played WoW. There is a lot to explain, and the film only does a passable job of it. This also hurt the characters, who get to act far too little in this film because they spend way too much time explaining what the hell is actually happening instead of actually getting to do things. On the other hand, the themes of the movie and the complexity of it in general seem more geared to executive notes about how to make this film more appealing to normal people. The good and evil axis seems more clearly defined than it should be, without the moral grayness that really would have helped make the film more compelling. Warcraft often seems to be running in two different directions, only to crash back into each other in a mess that only sort of works. With all that said, the film somehow does manage to still be somewhat enjoyable, because the action works at times, it is quite pretty when it wants to be, and at least it uses the right fantasy tropes when it can.

Isn’t this based on…?

South Park said it best, “Make Love, Not Warcraft.”

Yep, the king of MMORPGS that basically has lived atop a mountain by itself for years. World of Warcraft has had such a stranglehold that until the rise of Final Fantasy XIV and except for the continued existence of Eve it basically left all other MMORPGs to fight for scraps.

Did it warrant its selection in The Anticipated?

This is going to be one of the biggest swings between quality of movie versus worthiness to be on this list, because this film absolutely warranted its selection. One of the reasons I chose this over Assassin’s Creed as a representative of the video game movie genre is that, if you remove some of the more zany futuristic tech stuff, Assassin’s Creed could simply be a film about assassins in the 15th century if it really wants, while Warcraft‘s inherent video game-ness seemed more ingrained. If Warcraft succeeds. that is a huge boon for video game movies, while Assassin’s Creed may simply prove people will watch cool action movies no matter what they are based on. Video games have had a rather terrible track record in cinema, to be sure, resulting in awful adaptations time and time again. Worse, the exceptions are really more just solid to okay films that look good by comparison, like the Silent Hill or Resident Evil movies. Or they are like Prince of Persia, which is not a good movie, but at least a respectable one (with albeit some real whitewashing issues). There is a real attempt to treat the subject of that film with some amount of seriousness, and because of that the film is at least competent. When Prince of Persia came out in 2010, I had hoped that would be a sign that this was the new floor for video game films, but instead it executed an acrobatic flip only to bump it’s head on the genre’s low ceiling. Over the course of decades and even into the modern era of CG, video game movies have failed to build anything of worth. Now, it hasn’t helped that film adaptations of games like Bioshock or Uncharted could never get off the ground, but it is still a distressing sign that we still can’t seem to figure this out.

Seriously, this is the Horde’s leader. This dude is all kinds of evil.

Warcraft had a chance to start turning the tide, especially considering how long this film has been in development, and while it isn’t necessarily the best quality-wise, it does have a number of things going for it. First off, Legendary and Universal went all out with this film. It got a huge budget, a huge marketing campaign, and a general sense of confidence from the studios that have rarely been given to video game movies. This is what helps the film look quite good, and you can tell that everyone involved is deeply invested in making the best film possible, which has just not always been the case with video game films. There is a seriousness to the filmmaking here that is greatly appreciated and creates a new line of competence, which can hopefully serve as a bench mark along with Prince of Persia of where these films need to be at minimum. This movie could have been a joke if handled in the wrong way, and it definitely was not, so that is promising for future video game films. As an added bonus, if it gets a sequel, there might be a chance to do some real good work now that so much troublesome exposition is out of the way.

But Warcraft‘s ultimate impact may have nothing to do with its genre and everything to do with the way studios look at box office returns going forward. This film has only made about $37 million domestically, which is terrible considering it had a budget of $160 million and an expensive marketing campaign. This film is still going to be the highest grossing video game film of all-time, however, and likely the first to cross the $400 million mark, almost purely because of how well it’s done internationally. That is nothing new, as this has been the case for many films for quite some time. What is different with Warcraft, however, is this film has done incredibly well in China, the source of more than $200 million in revenue for the film. This could be big: Warcraft could ultimately be the point we look back on as when Hollywood realized it could literally market a film primarily to China and make bank. This idea has been around for years, but Warcraft is the first film to stand out so much in China compared to its domestic haul.

So how did this happen? Well, WoW is huge in China, even bigger than it is in America, so the fact that China went bonkers for Warcraft isn’t that surprising. The fact that it went this bonkers is. If a second Warcraft film gets made (at presumably a lesser budget) it will be entirely because of how well this film did in China. That is a big if, though, as the film has dropped like a rock in box office sales since it came out, and even China doesn’t seem particularly keen on rewatching the film once it has been seen. This means that it is doubtful that this film has the legs to get to a financial point that doesn’t make a sequel a risk (probably would have needed to get more like $500 million to make this an easier decision). Still, the fact that this film even has a chance of getting a sequel considering how disastrous its domestic haul has been is a game changer, and at the very least this movie is the precursor to a time in the future when a film will get a sequel entirely based on a single country outside the US.

Would I recommend it to others?

Umm, I guess, if you just want to see a video game film that won’t make you want to set yourself on fire, but definitely only as a rental or VOD. Sadly, this is about the highest level of recommendation I can give to any video game film at this point.

How would I rate it?

This film had no clue what to do with you, Paula Patton.

Just like Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, while the quality of this film is questionable, its impact on filmmaking going forward could be quite substantial, so Warcraft receives 8.5 gryphons out of 10. It may change the game for how movies are made going forward, but can’t get too much credit because it hasn’t done enough to guarantee it will in fact get a sequel.

For an actual rating: This film has so many issues, but at the same time there is a lot to respect. That doesn’t mean it is good, but it does mean it isn’t absolute garbage. Plus, video game films get graded on a curve because they have been so damn awful, so ultimately that leaves me to score this film 2 stars out of 4. I may have gone a little to high, but the film did manage pockets of really good filmmaking, so I am rounding up from the 1.75 stars it probably actually deserves.

That’s it for this edition of The Anticipated. Next up is The BFG. After the surprisingly good Bridge of Spies, is Steven Spielberg actually trying to make great films again? We’ll find out next time.

-David Robertson