‘When I saw Warcraft in theaters, my first impression was amazement. Even as it was happening, I couldn’t believe that this movie existed. I absolutely understand why this movie has a very low score on Rotten Tomatoes, and despite my issues with that website, I don’t think that’s necessarily the wrong call. And yet, if you compare the scores of viewers and critics, there is a stark contrast. It’s normal for this kind of movie to have higher fan scores than critic scores, but in this case the difference is extreme. It seems easy to explain this discrepancy at first; Warcraft is a movie made for fans by fans. But there’s more to it than that.
On it’s face, Warcraft is your typical contemporary Hollywood schlock. The simple plot is presented in a convoluted way and the dialogue is unnatural. The visuals are amazing, but in service of a story you might have trouble caring about. What Warcraft has that other movies don’t, is unapologetic weirdness. The orcs could easily have been human actors in make-up like Lord of the Rings. The armor designs could have been scaled down and made realistic. The colors could have been muted. Thankfully, Duncan Jones made the call to make the movie as wacky as possible.
The state-of-the-art effects are in tandem with a bombastic art department. The saturated colors pop out of the screen, the fantastical character and costume designs go all the way to emulate the almost cartoonish style of the games. Visually speaking, Warcraft is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, at least in live-action. This aspect of the film was criminally underrated and in my eyes makes Warcraft recommendable.
But visuals aren’t the only place Warcraft went all the way. There is no effort to tone down the bizarre story-line either. The first five minutes waste no time to let you know what you’re in for. A demonic orc opens an interplanetary portal using the souls of strange blue creatures. A pregnant orc gives birth on the other side, and the demonic orc steals the soul of a deer to give her stillborn baby a new life. Queue the main title card.
By not softening the strange elements of Warcraft, the soul of the games remain in-tact. If the movie had Lord of the Rings orcs and Lord of the Rings elves and realistic medieval costumes, it would be just like every other epic fantasy movie ever. Commitment to realizing the game as it is creates an experience that is only augmented by the stilted dialogue and wooden acting.
Motion-capture has a history of creating an “uncanny valley” effect, and to be honest, Warcraft is no exception. The orcs are super-realistic, beyond anything I’ve seen from CG characters, besides Gollum. It varies how good they look from shot to shot, but in the best shots they look as real as the human actors. These shots are the most uncanny of all, since orcs themselves are almost human, but not quite. This coupled with the orcs giving the best performances of the movie lets us forget they aren’t real and casts a strange dreamlike quality over the scenes with orcs.
Many critics note that the human characters and story are significantly less interesting than their orcish counterparts. This is true, but may have been a creative choice. There’s no getting around it that the humans are bad actors, but much of that can be blamed on bad dialogue. It is my theory that this was intentional. Each of the main human characters represents an archetype of Dungeons & Dragons player. Travis Fimmel’s Lothar is the guy who thinks he’s too cool for D and D. Ben Foster’s Medivh is the pretentious dungeon-master who reads as much philosophy as he does Lord of the Rings lore. Ben Schnitzer’s Khadgar is the young guy, somewhat new to the game who really wants to fit in with the group.
It may sound like I’m projecting, but if you watch the movie with this mindset, it makes a lot of sense. The dialogue sounds like the sort of thing role-players would come up with on the spot. None of the actors look like they belong in their costumes; they’re just some average dudes. Whether or not this reading is intentional is impossible to say, but it definitely makes the movie more entertaining.
The Warcraft games have a history of dark story-lines contrasted with a cartoonish style and nerd-oriented humor. Even on the Warcraft III level where you slaughter a city full of civilians before they become zombies, you can click on your Peasants repeatedly until they start quoting Monty Python. There is always humor just outside of the main story. The direct comedy is very limited in the Warcraft movie, and most of what was there ended up on the cutting room floor. The jokes are definitely the kind of thing role-players would say to add a bit of levity to a situation, without fully disconnecting from the game. This combined with some easter eggs for fans (there’s a freaking Murloc in this movie!) help keep the proceedings from becoming another grim dark fantasy movie.
The film has elements of intentional camp while also fully committing to a realistic interpretation of a video game world. The best camp films are not intentionally campy. Sharknado will never be the classic that Plan 9 is. Duncan Jones knows this, and has crafted his film to appear unintentionally campy with the knowledge that it will make his film timeless. I’d like to think this statement is more than the increasingly tired excuse of “it’s bad on purpose”. I think there’s a very big difference between bad and camp.
The biggest question I still have about the Warcraft movie is whether it is approachable by non-fans. I have a very hard time saying yes. The film moves quickly through exposition, almost assuming that you have prior knowledge. For some viewers, this was okay, but most people who haven’t played the game probably got very little out of it. Much of the impact this film had was in finally rendering the world of Warcraft in photo-realistic HD. If you don’t know the background of Warcraft, and all the cool things to come, this will probably be boring for you. But that’s okay. I think it’s time to reject the idea that all movies have to be made for everyone. Over one hundred million people have played World of Warcraft at some point, and while the other games are less popular, their sales still number in the tens of millions. To me, that sounds like more than enough of a reason for this movie to exist, and I don’t think the movie is bad because it doesn’t appeal to everyone.
Warcraft is a bizarre concoction of never-before-seen visuals, incredible special effects, a trance-like pace and campy performances. For me, this added up to shear brilliance, but for most people it will be a confusing mess. I think the problem at the end of the day is that Warcraft is new. Blockbuster movies tend to be straightforward stories with a big battle at the end, minimal character development with spectacle as king. Warcraft fits this in many ways, but is also operating on other levels. Warcraft is the new Dark Crystal. There’s not much for story, but the cutting edge visuals and art design will help this movie be remembered. Warcraft is completely unique, and many critics living in their rigid boxes didn’t know what to do with it. With this film Duncan Jones has reached auteur status by creating a film that defies the simple labels of good and bad and embraces its identity as a singular cinematic experience.