I have a long history with the Warcraft property. I played the old RTS games when I was in middle school, and I got swallowed into the giant world of Azeroth via World of Warcraft during high school and college. I put more hours into that game than I ever want to think about. I’ve also read the books, which are pretty fun in their own right though not well written. My journey with the property stopped many years ago, long before “Wrath of the Lich King” came to an end, but the world and lore have always held a strong place in my heart.
You cannot break that kind of attachment.
However, from the opening preview of the Warcraft 2016 movie, I knew I was in for a rough time. Out of all the stories to tell, they went with the most boring: Orcs vs. humans. Why not bring on the Scourge? Why not tell of the Sundering? Why not show Arthas’ rise and fall? Or what about Illidan’s rise and fall? There are also like a thousand different dragons—do one of them. Deathwing maybe. He’s pretty awesome.
Nope. We get Orcs and humans, the thing The Lord of the Rings gave us in the mid 1950s. Tolkien did it better too.
And yet…and yet there’s enough here that we could have gotten a compelling story with Orcs vs. humans, as derivative as that is. The lore is capable of giving us more than what we bargained for. “Could have” is the sad qualifier here though. Warcraft 2016 can be broken up into three parts: Orcs, Humans, and Mages, and each one by itself has something fun to it.
The Orcs are fleeing a dying home yet are commanded by Gul’Dan, a warchief corrupted by the Fell. He’s destroying everything in his path, from the good to the bad, and has done away with honor long ago. Those under him only follow him out of a strong necessity, for this corrupt warchief will save the Orc race.
The humans are faced with a new foe, one they know nothing about. Their cities are being raided and burned from underneath their noses, and what’s worse, the Night Elves, Dwarves, and other races who are supposed to be allies aren’t helping. King Llane Wrynn is faced with some tough decisions and political drama, and he doesn’t know what to do. He hasn’t the men to face the Orcs alone.
The mages fear the Fell as a corruptive, unstoppable magical force, and when it shows up, they’re off to figure out where it came from and why. Something like that doesn’t just appear out of nowhere: It had to be invited in. Is there a traitor in the mix? Can a lowly mage who abandoned the Kirin Tor help solve all of these problems despite holding no respect from anyone?
Each one of these stories by itself could make a fun movie. The problem is, Warcraft wants to have all of them. Each of these movie-length plots is crammed into this film to the point of bursting, turning what should have been an awesome flick into a bogged down mess with too many characters, too much exposition, and little to root or care for.
I get trying to give the Orcs and humans equal plotting: You can’t care for both sides if you don’t. Fans of the lore and video games know that Azeroth is not a black-and-white continent—the humans are just as capable of evil as the monstrous Orcs—but this isn’t a video game. It’s fine to not give both sides to this conflict, especially when one side is way more interesting than the other.
Here’s the thing: I full-stop loved the Orcs in this movie. They’re everything they should be: Huge, honorable, slightly cartoonish, fearsome, equipped with giant weapons that border on being silly, ride big wolves, and have stupid-large shoulder armor. They are also surprisingly human. There’s a lot of to connect and sympathize with, and this is all established well before we’re forced to care about any of the humans. Durotan and the Frostwolf clan should have been the entire movie.
I mean hell, focusing entirely on them would have been amazing! Durotan is watching his fellow Orcs succumb to the Fell as they kill innocents to power the portal that will save the Orc race. They want to stop Gul’Dan, yet doing so dooms their people to a blackened, ruined world that can no longer support life. However, not stopping Gul’Dan dooms their people to the Fell.
That is compelling! That is awesome! That is also a fantasy story that has not been told on the big screen. We’ve seen Orcs vs. humans, but we have yet to see sympathetic Orcs. They’re always the bad guys, and other than maybe three in this movie, that remains the case.
Making viewers care about monsters would have been awesome, but it’s just so hard to do that when we only focus on a few of them, and at least two of those are evil.
So let’s talk about the humans. Or we could not because they were kind of terrible. A big part of this was the casting: Llane Wrynn was not kingly, and Medivh was lame. I didn’t buy either as characters. Dominic Cooper l is too young and too scrawny to be the leader of Stormwind, and this version of Medivh is as boring as can be. You’re telling me a hermit mage with so much power he could single-handedly turn the tide of battle is this normal? No. No I do not accept that!
Khadgar is the only saving grace to be found, the runaway wizard who finds himself in way over his head. His backstory is actually pretty good despite being delivered in a chunk of exposition, and his underdog status makes it hard not to root for him.
And then there is Garona (more like Groan-a (see what I did there?)) who is a half Orc, half human, and despised by both. She’s supposed to be this middle character, stuck between two sides with no real home, and while that should have been dramatic and interesting, it came across as ham-fisted and cliché. Everything about her was terrible, from the cringe-inducing dialogue to the long bouts of exposition to the lame romance subplot from out of nowhere, and it wasn’t until the very end that she started to serve a purpose. Other than her last scene, I just wanted her to disappear forever.
She ruined every scene she was in, and I’m not going to fully blame the actress for that either. There’s only so much you can do with a bad script.
Despite being a bogged-down mess with some bad characters, Warcraft 2016 isn’t without its merits. I loved the Orcs as I said, but I also loved the action set pieces. They’re big and fun. Watching an Orc swing a giant hammer at anything is just awesome, made better by some excellent sound design. Every battle reminded me of the video games in the best ways possible, and I’d gladly go see the movie again just for that.
Like I said, you can’t break the attachment I have to this series, problematic film or not.
The magic too is wonderful, bombastic and everything you’d expect from a video game, and it’s not anything I’ve ever seen on the big screen before. Silly mage words plus silly hand signals equals giant fireballs, portals, shields, and lightning storms. It’s awesome stuff, and a big reason why I want more fantasy stories of this sort brought to film. It’s just goddamn fun.
I do wish we had more of it in the movie. We get a handful of big, fun spells, but I’d have loved for a full on mage-vs-mage fight, with counterspells and fireballs flying from every which way as the combatants blink around and toss up temporary shields. It’s a bit of a failing that there are so few mages, especially on the Orc front. Gul’Dan was cool as a warlock, but I wanted more than just one warlock. Orcs can be shamans too! Where’s my chain lighting at?
The fight sequences are also oddly graphic. I guess the cartoon aspects helped the studio get away with cramming more gore and blood into a PG13 movie than is necessary, but it added a lot of weight (and meat, don’t forget the meat) to the fights we get. It’s a good thing.
My experiences with the Warcraft lore did help squeeze a lot more love out of this flick than perhaps was warranted. When Khadgar flew to Dalaran, my jaw dropped. I’ve seen that place before! Hell, I’ve lived there. I recognized places and spires and as cynical as my wretched body is, my face broke out into smiles. So too did I grin when the Blackrock Orcs were mentioned—I’ve ran that dungeon and fought them—or when different places were mentioned in passing, such as the Searing Gorge. Hell, the final battle takes place in what becomes the Blasted Lands! I’ve been all over Azeroth, and seeing that world come to life in this way was moving in such a thick, nostalgic way that I find it hard to hate this movie.
At the end of the day, Warcraf 2016 is a problematic movie with a few things going for it and a lot of heart to boot. At least a full third of it is a mess, and I’d be hard pressed to recommend this to anyone with little knowledge of Warcraft, but hell, I had some fun. The magic was worth the price of admission, and I got to see someone polymorphed into a sheep. No other movies out there will give you that.
Warcraft is a good bad movie, and its biggest fault is that it could have been a good great movie.