For years, George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series was considered too dense to properly adapt for film or television. It took HBO’s adaptation of the book series into a television series, Game of Thrones, to find a place with both the budget and allotment of time necessary to delve into the world of Westeros, with its various regions and families coming into conflict in a sprawling manner.
Try taking a season of Game of Thrones and cutting it down to a two-hour film. Think of how much would have to be streamlined or rushed through. And now, you understand some of the problems that plague Warcraft.
The central story of Warcraft involves the first contact between orcs and humans. The orcs live on Draenor, a planet that has been consumed by fel, a dark magic used by their leader, Gul’dan (Daniel Wu). He creates a portal connecting Draenor to Azeroth, a world that has lived in peace for years, and he brings with him a war party with the intent of conquering it for his people. Among the orcs is a chieftain named Durotan (Toby Kebbell), whose desire to save his people is compounded by his belief that fel is responsible for more than just the death of Draenor.
Meanwhile, the humans have issues of their own as they try to defend themselves against the orcs. From King Llane (Dominic Cooper) and his commander Lothan (Travis Fimmel), to the protector Medivh (Ben Foster) and young mage Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), to the half-orc, half-human Garona (Paula Patton), this group of one-dimensional archetypes must come together to protect Azeroth.
Here’s the thing: I have no preexisting working knowledge of the world of Warcraft (or World of Warcraft, for that matter), so I made sure to watch it with someone who had some knowledge. And while our ultimate impressions of the film were similar, that knowledge made accessing the film easier for him than my own lack of knowledge did for me. To the credit of writer/director Duncan Jones, Warcraft doesn’t hold back in including large parts of the dense mythology in this film. For fans of the game, that may be worth something. For non-fans, though, it makes the film an exhausting drudge through Warcraft mythology. What’s more, the film rarely manages to make any of it compelling, at least for newcomers. The orcs barely manage to have solid character arcs, which is more than what the humans get.
Visually, the film’s not much better. It’s odd: it’s clear that some care has been made to create a fantasy world that not only incorporates orcs, but dwarves and other beings from the game series, in a way that works for the big screen while also staying true to some of the more definable characteristics of these creatures in the games. Throwing them in with human actors, though, who clearly look human, makes it harder to buy all of this existing within the same universe. Warcraft also falls victim to some of the problems most other fantasy films have hit in the era of modern CGI: massive battles without anything to make the scene stand out. It’s massively generic.
Part of the problem is the same issue that plagues pretty much every film adaptation of a video game to date: video games and film are two very different forms of entertainment, and the qualities that make a video game work simply do not work in a film. Video games have lead characters who are largely blank slates on purpose; it’s easier to get into a game if a player can inject themselves into their character. With film, though, the characters have to have their own personalities and motivations, with more detail than a video game might allow. Video games involve an active level of participation, as opposed to the passive levels of participation necessary for film. While I can appreciate Jones’ approach to the world by diving in headfirst into the mythology, too much attention was paid there in lieu of adapting this world towards the strengths necessary for a solid, or even great, film. Maybe one day, a video game will be properly adapted into a good film. Until then, Warcraft joins the ranks of those that fail.