Warcraft: The Beginning (Movie Review)

If you grew up in the 80s and 90s then you were at the forefront of the big boom in the video game industry when it comes to Real-Time Strategy (RTS) games. There were some downright amazing games in those days in this genre, particularly Age of Empires, WarCraft, StarCraft, Command & Conquer, Homeworld and countless others. The mid-to-late 90s were a great time to be an RTS fan. Many of these games left a lasting impression on me, having to do with both story and gameplay, and I remember them all fondly. If there are two games here that particularly struck a chord with me however, those are WarCraft II: Tides of Darkness and the original Homeworld, and I’ve been a fan of both ever since I got my first copies of either, about 18 years for the former and 15 for the latter. Good lord, I feel old now.

My interest and fascination WarCraft II: Tides of Darkness eventually led to me becoming a near-die-hard World of WarCraft player, and I was absolutely stoked when news came out that the series would be getting a movie franchise. And that in itself has been a long, long journey. After many false starts, Warcraft: The Beginning is finally here and it is a movie that absolutely captures the heart and soul of the 22-year old franchise. One big caveat for any WarCraft fan is that the movie plays fast and loose with the established lore, and that there are some significant changes made for the cinematic audience, but if you look beyond that, then you see something that just totally fits the aesthetics of the overall franchise.

Note: This review contains some major spoilers for the movie, WarCraft: Orcs & Humans, and some of the concurrent novels, both old and new. Proceed at your own peril.

 warcraft movie poster

We start off with Durotan, warchief of the Frostwolves Orc clan, and Draka, his wife and a warrior, on the world of Draenor. They are reflecting on their lives and just generally having an introspective moment, magnified by the fact that Draka is pregnant and is expecting soon. Quickly after that, we see Durotan lead the Frostwolves to the Dark Portal, where armies of Orcs have gathered for an inter-planar assault under the leadership of Gul’dan, the Warchief of the Orcish Horde. From there on, we see how the Orcs leave Draenor and invade the world of Azeroth, beginning a rampage that eventually brings them into conflict with the Human kingdom of Azeroth and its protectors, led by Anduin Lothar and the mage Medivh. We see how loyalties shift, how friendships are forged and broken, how destinies and rivalries are forged. It is a tumultuous mix of a lot of things, a typical action fantasy movie in many ways, but also much more than that.

As I said above, the movie’s script plays fast and loose with the lore established in the first game, WarCraft: Orcs & Humans, and in the novels The Last Guardian by Jeff Grubb and even The Rise of The Horde by Christie Golden. In fact, in keeping with the timeline and storyline established in the movie, WarCraft fiction mainstay Christie has done a prequel novel Durotan which establishes the new lore and makes some significant changes to the story of Durotan and the Frostwolves before the invasion of Azeroth (review of the book coming soon). So this is my big warning to any WarCraft fans going to see this movie and expecting a retelling of the lore that we already know: don’t go into the movie expecting a straight retelling, because that’s not what is offered; the movie hits some of the known major story-beats, and that’s about it.

I had my concerns about the movie ever since the first trailer was released. The release of successive trailers did not change that. Romance between Lothar and Garona? Durotan and Orgrim plotting against the Horde? No mention of Medivh and the Kirin Tor? There was plenty that didn’t sit well with me, but I also fell in love with the amazing cinematography and the sweeping landscapes and the nostalgic action that the movie promised. For all of that, I was prepared to ignore the seeming lore changes. But when I finally saw the movie, I got to see first-hand just how much  had been changed.

As I sat through the movie, and scene upon scene unfolded, part of me cringed at all the changes that had been made. The romance between Garona and Lothar felt really forced, particularly as the actors had zero chemistry with each other and because a lot of made Garona so awesome in The Last Guardian was just gone. The subplot with Lothar having a son was also weird because it took away from the Lothar I know from the established lore, a completely dedicated soldier who watched one friend betray all that he loved and was unable to save another friend from an inglorious death. Making Orgrim Doomhammer a Frostwolf Orc was also weird because it essentially negated his storyline that eventually saw him take over the leadership of the Horde and make the Orcs a noble race once again. Khadgar being changed from a young and inquisitive mage of the Kirin Tor into a reckless and rogue mage was also painful because it completely changed the dynamic of his relationship with the guardian, Medivh. And on and on.

I’ll be very clear: the movie has a story that pales in comparison to the established lore. There were too many changes made, changes that make no sense to me because there really wasn’t any need to make them and because if the writers had stuck to the original lore, they would have had a far more unique story. From that perspective alone, the movie will disappoint most fans of the video game franchise. It lacks a lot of the more subtle emotional beats that I know, it lacks a certain punch that could have made it stronger as a whole.

Warcraft Stills 0002The biggest offender in my opinion however is how easily the script sidesteps Medivh as the inciting character, the master manipulator behind the scenes. When it comes to Medivh, the script is incredibly weak and all the emotional beats tied to his person story are just completely absent. Jeff Grubb wrote a masterful story in The Last Guardian about a man who has struggled to fit into a world that he doesn’t see himself as a part of, a man tortured by dark dreams of the past and dark visions of the future, a man who is at odds with himself. I recognize that the movie couldn’t really go into the details here, but the subplot wasn’t treated with the respect it deserved either. The story of Medivh’s fall from grace is at the heart of the entire WarCraft lore, and all it got was a few minutes of magical hokey-pokey. It is a surprise that this is the result of Chris Metzen, who has been the man to hold the WarCraft lore together for the last two decades, writing the story. But then again, I suppose something like this was inevitable.

But, that is also balanced by how true the movie feels in terms of its cinematography, its attention to the details of the world of Azeroth, and also the world-building. The scenes that are set in the city of Stormwind are particularly gorgeous in those terms because they essentially capture the feel of the setting from World of WarCraft. In the above still, I can see the Stormwind Castle, the Mage’s Quarter, the Dwarven District, and so much more. Having spent a fair amount of time in the city, within the game, I absolutely loved this. And then you have the scenes set in Karazhan, Medivh’s tower that is infamous in the game for being one of the best raid dungeon experiences, and also a big location for the story of the game. Or how about the scenes with the Dwarves and the Elves, both early on and late, which give us a wider perspective on the races that call the world of Azeroth home. There is an early scene set in the quiet town of Goldshire near Stormwind, which was huge for me since in the WoW game that town is the setting for a lot of early adventures for young player characters on the Alliance side. In another scene we get some murloc cuteness, which is pretty awesome, as the murloc creatures from the game have become an iconic part of the franchise. There are plenty of sweeping vistas where one or more characters travels by gryphon, which is yet more nostalgia since in classic World of WarCraft and even after that, all Stormwind-aligned cities and armies use these for transport of player characters. It is just really, really neat.

As an aside, there’s this particular scene late in the movie when Khadgar flies into Stormwind on the back of a gryphon, and I loved the camera perspective that Duncan Jones used for those brief seconds, precisely because that is the near-exact perspective you have whenever you fly into Stormwind in the game. To be exact, this is only when you are using the inter-city flying mounts. It is one very small experience in World of WarCraft, but it is just another thing that hits the nostalgia buttons.

And of course, can’t ignore the opening of the movie, in which an Orc warrior fights against a Human knight, and this sets the stage for some really awesome action sequences to follow. That’s where director Duncan Jones and his team get the most praise for me. The early RTS games really hammered home the “eternal” struggle between Orcs and Humans in their cinematics, and that is what Duncan Jones captured here. And then he went beyond that to showcase just how the physical battles between the two races really worked. There are a good number of set-piece action scenes in the movie, and every one of them is sure to delight fans of the franchise. Gangs of huge, burly orcs wielding giant axes and maces against armoured ranks of knights and footmen wielding swords and hammers. Where the Lord of the Rings movies made mass-battles legendary, Warcraft goes lower to the ground and has more of what we’d call skirmishes. The stories are much more personal, much more immediate than in that grand epic. And then there’s also the dialogue from Lothar in which he tells a footman early on to not fight the Orcs in a straight one-on-one, but to fight smart. That one shows how the Humans have to adapt in their fight against the Orcs since they are unlike any other foes they’ve experienced, and more is to come later!

Can’t ignore either how much the script makes use of the Orcish mounts, especially with Durotan and the Frostwolves. Giant wolves who can match horses in height but outmatch them pound-for-pound in a fantasy war movie? Oh yeah, sign me up. Orcish wolf riders are a classic aspect of the franchise, and Duncan Jones makes good use of them, helping set the Orcs apart from their enemies. There’s just something incredible about a big bad wolf charging at a mounted knight.

Warcraft Stills 0001If you look at Warcraft: The Beginning as a self-contained story, then it is pretty decent fare. You have some typical Hollywood aspects that are given the WarCraft touch-ups to make them feel relevant. The romance isn’t what it could have been, had they given proper attention to it, some of the friendships felt a little too forced since there was often a lack of explanation for those beyond the obvious and we were expected to take those at face-value and the movie also just perpetuated the secretive crazy wizard trope popularized so well by Gandalf in recent times. There is a big ensemble cast and the pacing can be off at times as a result, but there’s still a gradual build-up to the climax with lots of great scenes thrown in. As adaptations go, Warcraft: The Beginning is better than most, by far, but it isn’t the best either, and that’s apparent. But I’m still glad that the movie was made by people who are knowledgeable about the roots of the game, people who have taken a part in its development over the years, and even people who have competed at some of the higher levels, such as actor Robert Kazinsky (voicing and portraying Orgrim Doomhammer), who was a part of a World Top 100 raiding guild in World of WarCraft. That’s pretty awesome.

And the film had a really good cast too. Travis Fimmel of Vikings fame as Sir Anduin Lothar was a good casting decision and he certainly delivered. Dominic Cooper as King Llane Wrynn could have been better, but the script unfortunately didn’t give him much to do, and he’s certainly capable of doing a lot as he’s proven on Marvel’s Agent Carter and the upcoming Preacher. Ruth Negga as Queen Taria was also nice, and I’m a huge fan of her from Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD where she was a highlight of the show’s premier season, though this is a very different role. Toby Kebbell as Durotan and Anna Galvin as Draka, though all their scenes were through the magic of CGI and motion-capture, they nonetheless brought those characters to life and I would have love to have seen more of them. Daniel Wu as the warlock Gul’dan evokes all the dread and evil of the character in every scene he is and just does an all-around excellent job; without him, the movie wouldn’t have been the same. Paula Patton as Garona and Ben Foster as Medivh however, those didn’t fit right, partly because their entire dynamic from The Last Guardian was missing from the movie, and also because they were stuck in what could be said to be caricatures, one a love-interest and the other a secretive, mysterious wizard. The script never really knew how to make good use of either, and that’s a shame, because they are both talented actors and deserve better.

Warcraft Stills 0003

There is lots more that could be said for the movie, both good and bad, but for now I’d just say that Warcraft: The Beginning is a movie worth watching, at least once. Being a fan of the game, I wouldn’t mind seeing it again when it comes out on home media, because I loved getting a live-action representation of a video game franchise I’ve been invested in for almost two decades now. It is not as faithful as I wanted it to be, but it is still feels like a distinctly WarCraft story, and ultimately that is what matters far more.

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Posted on June 4, 2016, in Movie Reviews, Review Central and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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