Review: Warcraft: The Beginning – Middling video game adaptation fails to impress

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THE HISTORY of video game to movie adaptations has always been a mixed bag. For every Silent Hill you get a Hitman. For every Lara Croft: Tomb Raider you get a Prince of Persia. For every Resident Evil you get a Resident Evil: Retribution. The risks of making adaptations of any source material are often abundant and this is no more acute than with video games. Stay too slavish to the source material and you risk confusing newcomers to the film, stray too far and you risk alienating die-hard fans.

Plus, the added change from an interactive format to one that isn’t can be jarring if the filmmakers try to make something too close to the games. So how does someone make a film based on a video game, like World of Warcraft, where the video game relies on the player to tell their own story through character choice within the confines of the greater lore? The answer, unfortunately, lies elsewhere.

Warcraft: The Beginning is a fairly solid fantasy film in a genre stricken by a lot of poor creations. The beats are all there; evil invading force, heroic humans, a quest to save the shining city. They even manage to create some internal conflict with good people on the evil side and evil people on the good side, something that a lot of fantasy stories fail to pull off well or even convincingly. Each side of the conflict struggles with its own demons and the balance of the two sides shifts constantly throughout the film but the main issue, from this point, is the characterisation of each individual. Rather than focus on either one or two protagonists, we are introduced to four different main characters: Sir Alduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel) a knight in service to the king; Durotan (Toby Kebbell), an orc chieftain who doubts his place in the orc warband; Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), a runaway mage, and Garona (Paula Patton), a half-orc who is despised by the majority of the orc warband.

Films with multiple protagonists do exist and can be very good – especially fantasy films, which lend themselves to many different leads – but the ones that work recognise the fact that an increased number of protagonists heightens the importance of pacing the film correctly. Warcraft spends a lot of time dancing between the four main characters and, as a result, they have less depth than if they’d been given a few more minutes of solo screen time. There are also better ways to introduce characters than constantly dumping exposition about them onto the audience.

Throughout the film, new information is revealed about all of the protagonists when, realistically, a filmmaker should have finished introducing a character by the first act or at least woven their reveals into the story better. What the audience is left with are archetypes rather than characters. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but if you want the audience to care about the characters’ arcs you have to develop them beyond simple archetypes. Quite often a character will change their opinion and decisions at a moment’s notice, and with seemingly little convincing. At other times, plot points will randomly come out of nowhere and disappear with no trace of them having affected anything. The feeling is one of chaos which lends itself to a messy film.

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It also doesn’t help that the characters are often simply mouthpieces to report information. Rather than showing the audience an emotion the characters have to tell them how they feel at every turn too. But is it the failing of a poor script or the failing of lacklustre acting? Travis Fimmel was great as Ragnar Lothbrok in Vikings; the smirking, self-confident Viking warrior was a perfect lead for the TV show’s punk aesthetic. But when placed in the role of a courtly knight, the same characteristics just don’t fit at all and Fimmel just comes across as bored half the time as do the majority of the other actors in this film. Schnetzer’s mage Khadgar is a particularly bad example of overacting in the wrong parts, which is a shame as the actor seems to have a hidden range in this character but, again, because of the lack of exposition we are given of the characters, the audience just can’t see it.

The best acting in this film goes to the CG Orc characters. The motion-capture performances from the actors as the Orcs are as realistic as those of the live action actors on-screen. The Orcs inhabit their space well and are a true reflection of how good CG performance capture can be in modern film-making, especially when bringing to life characters that are as alien as the Orcs are in this film. This is something that the film does particularly well.

The visual effects are brilliant and the CG is on par with some of the best. The visual representation of magic in the film feels visceral and meaty. Characters’ reactions to magic around them are realistic, people being struck by magic are appropriately winded, and those that use magic seem to feel a range of effects, making the outcomes of the spells even more dangerous. The CG usage in this film is a true testament to how far films have come that the effects can be so convincing and well utilised.

However, the CG usage can’t cover up the glaring issues with this film. The overall feel of the film is of one that needs a lot of foreknowledge. Newcomers to the lore will be left feeling out of their depth by the level of unexplained information that goes on in this film. This also ties into the major criticism that can be levelled against this film, that being the inconsistencies of the characters. Quite often the film feels as if the characters needed to reach a certain point before the end of the film regardless of what happened beforehand.

For all the criticisms levelled against them, The Star Wars Prequel films were a good example of how to write a character arc, even when the audience knows beforehand how that character is going to turn out. Warcraft: The Beginning feels like the writers in charge knew where the characters needed to go and how to set them up to being with but fudged the middle of their arc. What is more disappointing is that writer/director Duncan Jones has proved that he can create a compelling character arc, as evidenced by his work on Moon (2009), so this film feels like a bit of a missed opportunity.

Overall this film isn’t necessarily a bad one. It’s got solid action and a fairly good storyline. It’s just that it feels as if it could’ve been paced better. Very rarely will you see audiences asking for more time for a film or even more films to tell the story better, but a slower pace and more attention paid to building the characters is what could have fixed Warcraft: The Beginning.

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