Warcraft exceeds expectations, but falls short of hooking in casual audiences.
Disclaimer: I have been huge fan of the Warcraft mythos since pouring over the original instruction booklet in 1995. It’s safe to say that it shaped my appreciation of the fantasy genre just as much as The Hobbit (the book) and Dungeons and Dragons (the game). I’ve raided Onyxia and sailed the Tides of War, and I restrained myself very well when Josh called Gul’Dan a necromancer (he is clearly a warlock). And yes, I realize how incredibly nerdy that distinction is.
The first thing most viewers will notice with Warcraft is the amazingly well done CGI, bringing to life the towering orcs next to their human costars. Every breath, hair, and giant weapon is rendered with perfection, presenting an immersive mix of animation and real life. In fact, this is a movie that blurs the lines so often, it becomes less obvious over time, and avoids a lot of the ‘obvious green screen’ appearance of big CGI epics. It’s of special note that the soundtrack, composed by Ramin Djawadi of Game of Thrones fame, thunders and sweeps with the fury of the Horde, even tossing in the occasional reference to the soundtracks of the games.
Within the multiple storylines on show in Warcraft, the themes of honor, loyalty, and betrayal run deep. While the movie could have easily set up a simple ‘us versus them’ war between the Orcs and Humans, it instead makes the unusual choice of introducing the Orcish horde first, delving immediately into the internal struggles facing them as they flee a dying world. While it’s obvious who the real villain of the story is, a few well placed twists help to prevent a by-the-numbers playbook, while keeping the main themes of each world clearly defined.
Director Duncan Jones brings the world of Azeroth (and to a lesser extent, the Orc home world of Draenor) to vivid life, full of recognizable locations, sweeping vistas, and more than one reference to the deep, deep lore it draws from. Fans of the series will hear familiar locations and names from every angle, but even those new to the universe will be able to grasp the overlying themes and plot. However, there are a few sections that feel rushed, pulling viewers away from interesting locations and cultures to throw them back into the ever-progressing plot. It feels like Jones wants to show us everything possible about the world, in order to hook our interest on something long enough to keep us in line for the next scene. While this scattered approach works great for fans of the game and lore, it can be a bit quick for the average viewer.
Unfortunately, Warcraft carries a few flaws that have significantly affected it’s reception. First, while Blizzard themselves continue to be a powerhouse developer, World of Warcraft subscriptions have been in a steady decline for the past few years, giving the name less of a pull than it would have in 2010 (though to be fair, this level of CGI immersion would have been far less possible then, so either way there would have been hurdles.) Second, while the slightly non-traditional plot and multiple storylines will no doubt please fans, it’s obvious from the first round of reviews that professional movie critics are having a difficult time grabbing on. Currently, the movie sits at a 28% critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but an 81% audience approval rating, and IMDB rates it a solid 7.5/10. In fact, it seems like Warcraft is already primed to become a well-loved, but critically panned, addition to the high fantasy landscape. Thankfully, due to a huge Chinese box office draw, a sequel is more than likely, so all of the world building may pay off.
In fact, it’s worth a whole new paragraph to discuss the standards to which Warcraft is being judged. More than one critic has declared it a failure of a movie due to its source material being based entirely on video games, as well as being less accessible to normal movie fans. What’s strange is, these exact claims could be applied to the blockbuster Captain America: Civil War, which is just as packed with characters, references, and plot-lines. The difference here is that Warcraft didn’t have six movies preceding it to set up these characters, but as standalone films, both waste little time with backstory. I’ll admit that the whirlwind exposition gives little room to breathe, and the movie could have done with a few less plot threads, but overall it comes together into a solid piece of cinema.
Warcraft won’t win any awards for acting or story (though it should easily dominate the CGI landscape), but for fans of the lore, it’s a wonderful journey into a world they grew up building and warring in. For the casual movie goer dragged in by this fan, sit back and enjoy a spectacle of a fandom you may not feel part of, but one that’s entertaining none the less.