Warcraft: The Beginning
Director: Duncan Jones / Screenplay: Duncan Jones & Charles Leavitt / Editing: Paul Hirsch / DP: Simon Duggan / Score: Ramin Djawadi
Cast: Travis Fimmel / Paula Patton / Ben Foster / Dominic Cooper / Toby Kebbell / Ben Schnetzer / Robert Kazinski / Clancy Brown / Daniel Wu / Ruth Negga / Anna Galvin
Fighting For Relevance…
Where to begin? I daresay that’s the very question which first came to writers Duncan Jones & Charles Leavitt.
Where to begin… In adapting a videogame franchise, long-established and with millions of fans worldwide, it can’t have been easy to find an answer. I learn that the Producers had run into the same brick wall on numerous occasions, until Jones & Leavitt (Warcraft fans, both) offered an answer: treat both protagonist & antagonist equally when doling-out story. In that way, you build a narrative-driven movie, instead of a user-centric videogame.
The Warcraft franchise, then, started in the early Nineties as a PC-based strategic game, in which players took sides in a four-way conflict between Orcs, Elves, Dwarves & Humans, Each of these ‘classes’ offering unique skills & fighting abilities, that players could ‘tune’ with the addition of upgrades. When developer Blizzard moved things online, the franchise expanded to a global audience and became a pillar of the videogame industry: sadly, a film adaptation was then almost inevitable. But, as tends to be the case with similar ventures, the sheer number of hurdles to be overcome, often runs the risk of capsizing projects before they’ve begun.
Allow me to explain. When adapting a novel for the screen, the screenwriter’s job is both to fillet the source for its principal characters & plot and consider the film’s eventual running time. If that means ditching irrelevant sub-plots, then so be it. What you end up with, ideally, is a recognisable impression of the source. Every reader will have their own idealised casting & locations of course, so any creative team is best served, either by pursuing artistic goals in-keeping with the source, or re-setting into a radically different milieu and trusting the plot & characters to do the heavy lifting.
That’s how successful adaptations of Shakespeare have, on occasion, flirted with different eras & locations: they still work, because they’re underpinned by familiar elements, that flow in the same sequence as the source. It matters not if The Tempest is set in space (Forbidden Planet), or Romeo and Juliet find themselves in 1950s New York (West Side Story), as long as these essential strands – plot & character – are retained.
But a videogame is a different beast. For one thing, unless you’re playing a scripted adventure, no single player will have the exact same experience as another, due to the variables in both their gameplay styles, skills, character upgrades and so on. Even scripted adventure games, where players control an avatar through a series of plot-driven set-pieces, are usually padded-out with umpteen distractions, that lure them away from the main quest. As a result, when we come to build a narrative structure from such material for a film, the screenwriter is faced with my opening question: Where to begin?
I’ve seen many videogame adaptations over the years and most have been flawed; their productions handicapped through unsatisfactory resolution of this very problem.
And it’s not just narrative which proves tricky. While production technologies have crossed-over in recent years, enhancing both mediums in the process, there remains the gulf of interactivity.
Watching a movie is a passive activity. You sit there in the dark, while the film flickers before you, only to end a few hours later. It’s a self-contained entity; a bubble of story & spectacle, for which there’s a dedicated audience, just as there are for games. But games, especially these days, don’t generally come in bite-sized chunks. The more prestigious titles offer a minimum of, say, fifteen hours of scripted content, before you even scratch the online multiplayer component, which is increasingly commonplace. So, to offer the filmgoer a reason to see a movie based on a videogame, you’re going to need a popular franchise or character (i.e. Tomb Raider) that have transcended their original format to become something bigger: a ‘Household Name’.
And that creates its own problems. A casual gamer is unlikely to seek-out a movie tie-in, given the sheer amount of other distractions vying for their time. Yet for the hardcore gamer, the filmed version has to offer a scripted interpretation of their free-wheeling experience and a lore they’re likely obsessive about. In essence, then: a film, can only deliver a passive, non-interactive version of an interactive source.
So we have our two intractable problems: plot and the lack of agency.
I’ll state at the outset that, while I’ve been an avid gamer for over forty years myself, I’ve not once experienced Warcraft. It therefore goes without saying, that the problems outlined here, are not unique to the franchise, merely par-for-the-course.
Jones & Leavitt (experienced writers, both) chose to place their take on the material, at ‘The Beginning’ (the clue’s in the portentous sub-heading). They understood, that the game’s extensive lore had to have started somehow, somewhere and that it might suggest an ‘origin story’, explaining how the later games’ key characters came-to-be. They also decided – quite rightly – to give equal prominence to both sides – Human & Orc – in order to demonstrate the film’s central theme: ‘Everyone’s alike, just misunderstood’. I have to give them credit here, for the writing is far better at-times, than a franchise tie-in of this kind has any right to be. That’s probably thanks to continued oversight from Blizzard, but it remains effective, no matter how many cooks were stirring the pot.
As for the lack of interactivity? Well, that’s intractable at this point, but the production did at least consider the look of the thing as a way of reaching the hardcore fans. To that end, the film’s design, led by Gavin Bocquet, succeeded admirably as a good-looking mish-mash of Lord of the Rings & Avatar. Fantasy movies stand or fall on the credulity of the worlds they inhabit. Often, it’s not even a question of budget, but of artistic taste and at least by this measure, one might suggest Warcraft is a ‘tasteful’ film. To look at Warcraft, is to drown in its beauty.
Which is where the good news stops. For the end result to function as a two-hour feature film, it would’ve taken a miracle of screenwriting to shoehorn it all in.
Warcraft is no miracle.
Instead, it’s like a burst cushion, straining at the seams to hold everything in. It does its best, but there’s just too much stuffing.
While I admire the principle of giving equal screen-time to both Orcs & Humans, the result is frustrating. Each side has a smattering of principle characters to accommodate, so you’re only going to get scant minutes in their company. There’s no time to establish backstory or their interpersonal dynamics beyond anything than the superficial. As a result, the film ends up in-limbo: a beautiful, textured confection worthy of admiration but offering little of substance and populated with stock characters we don’t care about, who’re just there as empty vessels to drive plot. How could it be otherwise?
And what of that plot? Well, if you’re interested, the Orc’s home-world is dying. A portal through to a lush, green alternative is opened: powered by the energy of blue-skinned prisoners who look like withered extras from Avatar (2009). A ‘war band’ made it through before the portal closed. Their objective? Capture sufficient prisoners on this new world, to re-start the portal and admit ALL the Orcs… In the absence of Elf & Dwarf (at least for now), only Humans – led by a sleepwalking Dominic Cooper as King Llane – offer resistance to the horde. At first, thanks to assistance from a magical Guardian, Medivh (Ben Foster), the fightback is strong. That is, until Medivh, swayed by the evil forces used by the Orcs, opens the portal himself…
Not that the Orcs are straightforward beasts of war. They’re drawn as having tight family bonds and live in clans, under an honour code not dissimilar to the Japanese Bushido. Their spiritual leader Gul’Dan (Daniel Wu) has opened the portal to ensure their race has a future beyond their dying realm: though it becomes clear, that his wizardry is itself largely responsible for the planet’s demise. They are refugees, then. How the Humans treat them – and how they reconcile that honour-code with a corrupt leadership – will set the course of history-yet-to-be-written. How fortunate, then, for a videogame series called Warcraft, that misunderstandings lead to all-out war between the four races.
Sorry: four races? Of course, except in Jones’ film, half of them – Dwarves & Elves – are missing, save for a couple of cameo appearances. I can see the reductive logic at-work here, but aside from over-stuffing that cushion, their inclusion smacks of little more than a contractual obligation to the licensor.
Wow. As if this wasn’t profound enough, it ends with a baby Orc drifting down a lazy river safely tucked into a rush basket!
Duncan Jones also directs. His debut – Moon (2009) – made a strong impression with a clever, nuanced sci-fi drama that he also wrote. He followed that as a director-for-hire on Source Code (2011). Warcraft was only his third feature, but I think it was a mis-step. This was Jones geeking-out at the chance to get involved on the ground floor with a beloved gaming franchise as it made the leap to film.
What he couldn’t see (or chose not to) was that, in essence, this whole venture was little more than a gross vanity project by Blizzard; a game developer so awash with cash, that it could afford to part-finance this sorry drivel and get to meddle in an industry it didn’t understand, with an IP that couldn’t adapt to a new medium without real care; care that was never really applied in the areas that mattered.
I get the attraction: I really do. But, this should’ve been a TV miniseries in the mould of Game of Thrones or The Witcher; themselves, both adaptations of revered literary sources. Had that occurred, an expanded writing team might’ve set-out their stall with more conviction. The richer story arcs that would likely have ensued, would’ve given viewers more reason to spend time in the company of fully-realised characters. As it is, things rattle-by with blink-and-you-miss-it speed which leaves the whole, teetering on the edge of incomprehensibility. That it just about survives, is thanks to the barebones story; each beat of plot, is telegraphed well in-advance, because there’s no room for texture.
Which brings me to my final point. No one’s going to watch Warcraft: The Beginning and come away thinking it The Best Film Ever Made, unless their own frame of reference is unfeasibly narrow. The film was certificated as ‘12’ here in the UK, to ensure as wide an audience as possible. As a result, there’s no graphic content whatsoever; don’t come to this, hoping for a re-tread of Conan the Barbarian (1982), even if Schwarzenegger’s scant lines of dialogue rival those of some characters here.
This is a cynical, sanitised land-grab of a film produced for the maximum audience it could hope to find. It’s pulling any number of punches and falls embarrassingly short of its potential. I’m not doubting the sincerity of those involved, not for a minute. When you look at what’s on-screen at-times, it’s a dizzying spectacle. The tragedy, is that it’s largely wasted in cutaways & trimmed scenes in-pursuit of a multiplex-friendly running time. Still, it made a decent return, so what do I know?
I learn that Jones’ experience during the project was bookended with family illnesses which would obviously have led his eye to wander from the ball, but on the evidence presented, it feels like this project almost consumed him as its Director as well. Little wonder that, five years-on, there’s been no talk of a ‘Director’s Cut’ to restore missing elements or attempt to wrestle the thing into some kind of cohesiveness. For Jones, I get the distinct feeling that the ship has long-sailed…
Warcraft then, is like a hot-air balloon struggling to maintain height. The big stuff (Dwarves & Elves) got thrown overboard first, but still it sinks Earthwards. Then goes backstory. Elegant establishing shots. Grace notes. Until you’re left with an empty carapace, devoid of nothing but the lattice of good-looking structure. Beyond that? Hot air…
‘I’m sorry old friend. Seems I have let the Orcs into this world. The Fel… just twisted me, I… don’t even know what else I may have done. I just… don’t remember. Everything I thought to protect I have… destroyed. I can’t control the Fel… no one can.’