Can a world-spanning, immersive game make the jump to film success?
I’ve spent a lot of time in Azeroth. For the uninitiated, Azeroth is the world inhabited by the heroes of Blizzard Entertainment, a multimedia company that has dominated the market of real time strategy and massively multiplayer online role playing games. Blizzard has titles like Diablo and StarCraft under its belt, and while I’ve always found the gameplay of those games to be fairly repetitive, they are insanely popular around the world, to the point that there are actually professional StarCraft players who make money playing a nearly 20-year-old game.
But of course, their flagship game series has always been Warcraft, starting first with three real time strategy games before expanding into the realm of MMORPG with World of Warcraft, an online sensation that at one point boasted 12 million subscribers worldwide. Having spent the better part of two years exploring that world, I can say that the stories found throughout the series are at times impressively deep, if derivative of almost every fantasy trope ever written.
Given the success of the franchise, it makes sense that Blizzard would want to expand into film. Fans have been clamoring for it and, like comic book films, there is no shortage of stories to tell. Unfortunately, Warcraft the film is mostly awful.
Much of the issue with Warcraft is the writing—there is a good movie in there somewhere, it’s just really hard to find behind the stilted, wooden dialogue. At times, the film is so by-the-numbers that it could be used as master’s course in film cliché. As derivative as the lore of the games can be at times, it can easily be overcome by the user experience of playing the game. Users are far more forgiving when actively participating in a campaign, willing to ignore glaring absurdity and trite conversations in favor of advancing through the game. When passively viewed, however, the problems become more obvious.
The crux of the story involves a burgeoning war between humans (there are always humans in these stories, no matter what planet they might be from) and the warlike, beastly Orcs. These Orcs have destroyed their home planet by accessing Fel magic, a demonic force that corrupts all that use it, and have set their sights on Azeroth for their new home using a Dark Portal.
Of course, not all Orcs follow the Fel—the noble Frostwolf Clan rejects the magic and secretly hopes to overthrow their leader Gul’dan through an alliance with the humans. None of this is terrible as an outline for a fantasy film—it works fine as an overall story. But the execution is so poor, with eye-rolling dialogue and relatively boilerplate action, that the film fails to elicit any emotions at all.
Another issue is with the casting itself. Beyond Travis Fimmell (Anduin Lothar) and Paula Patton (Garona), the cast do not appear to fit their parts. For major parts, like the king or the all powerful wizards, it’s as if they found actors that fit the people behind the keyboard rather than the heroes that the characters as supposed to be. There is nothing wrong with the actors themselves—everyone does the best they can with what they’ve been given, but what they’ve been given just doesn’t work.
There are moments that are enjoyable—Azeroth is full of other races like Dwarves and Elves (and Rastafarian trolls and Native American bipedal cows and Asian-inspired Panda people, but I suppose the filmmakers had to draw the lines somewhere) and the renderings of famous locations and creatures and spells are Easter eggs for fans of the game, but for audiences with no prior experience with the games, all they are left with is a dull, CGI-wfilled mess.
Video games have not fared well in terms of crossing into the medium of film. Taking an interactive experience and turning it into a passive experience is bound to be fraught with problems. Books are narratively similar and still often suffer problems in translating from page to screen. There is a wealth of video games that are genuinely powerful in terms of storytelling but thus far none have been able to successfully make the transition. Warcraft is just another casualty in the attempt to make that jump.
Still, For the Horde! and all that.