Movie Review – Warcraft: The Beginning

Video game movies are, in general, never good, and Warcraft isn’t, either, if I’m honest. Still, I was pleasantly surprised by it after the numerous very negative reviews it received. It might not be a good movie, in any objective sense of the word, but Warcraft is fun, and it tries hard, tackling its complex source material with an obviously loving respect and attention to detail while also clearly having some thought put into diversity and how to address problems like the lack of women in the story. It’s not perfect, but it’s definitely a movie worth seeing if you like the Warcraft games or if you aren’t too much a snob to enjoy this sort of decidedly middle-brow epic sword and sorcery.

Having only played World of Warcraft, myself, my knowledge of the Warcraft lore adapted for the film is somewhat limited, but from what I can tell, it’s brought to screen more or less faithfully. My partner’s biggest nitpick was that Dalaran isn’t supposed to be floating yet at this point in the story, but the Dalaran scenes were cool-looking enough—and the floating city is iconic enough for WoW players—that I can see why the filmmakers would make that change. The look of the film in general was definitely heavily influenced by WoW, and the orcs in particular looked much the same as they do in the game’s most recent expansion. This is actually true of pretty much everything we see on screen; much of it is lifted straight from the games and simply animated with more polygons. It’s a nice bit of visual continuity to tie the film to the games, but it would have been good to see a little more effort made to give the movie some style of its own as well.

Still, I was prepared for the heavy use of CGI to be completely overwhelming, and it wasn’t at all. Instead, everything looked good, not realistic, but enjoyably fantastical, and the magic effects in particular were excellently conceived and delivered. That said, I’d recommend skipping 3D. There’s plenty of scenery porn (Stormwind!) and some really lovely shots as Anduin Lothar rides around on his griffon, but the 3D never did feel fully immersive, and I can’t say that it added much to the viewing experience. At any rate, whatever the filmmakers thought 3D would add, it wasn’t important enough for the movie to be shot in real 3D, and it shows. It’s not terrible to look at, but you’re better off saving the extra $3-5 you’d spend for glasses.

From a storytelling perspective, the film is clearly overstuffed as it tries to squeeze two games’ worth of story into a movie of watchable length. At 123 minutes, I’d say this is done with mixed success. Another half hour of runtime would have given the story a little more space to breathe and wouldn’t have been too long. If the reportedly godawful Batman v Superman is allowed to drag on for 151 minutes, surely Warcraft could have gotten a little more time to round out its character arcs in a more satisfying fashion. Nearly every problem I have with Warcraft, from its sometimes odd tonal shifts to its clunky exposition to its far-too-rushed character work, could have been solved with just a few more minutes of movie. For all that I’ve seen Warcraft called bloated, I think it would be better described as just bursting at the seams. It’s not so much that there’s too much story; it’s that it’s stuffed into far too small a container.

Sadly, this is most evident when it comes to the treatment of the movie’s female characters. Poor Draka, charming as the very sweet opening scene of the movie is, exists only to give birth and die tragically. The always luminous Ruth Negga is utterly wasted as Queen Taria, whose name I had to google and who has little to do aside from standing around looking beautiful, though she does have a conversation with Garona that gives the movie a Bechdel test pass. Garona’s story is handled in a way that is, frankly, baffling. She’s by far the most developed of the female characters, but much of what passes as character development and arc for Garona happens in a sort of shorthand that just… doesn’t work, especially when it comes to her romance with Anduin Lothar and the friendship she’s supposed to have with Llane Wrynn, which diminishes the impact of the movie’s ending unless you’re familiar enough with Warcraft lore to fill in the blanks yourself.

The thing is, though, in spite of these failures you can tell watching the movie that the filmmakers cared about doing right by all of these women. They aren’t always successful, and sometimes fail entirely, but there’s a mindfulness in the execution of their stories that is refreshing, was even pleasantly surprising for me as I went into the film knowing that Warcraft is basically a complete sausage fest until much later in the game.

Yes, Draka literally exists to give birth and die to save her infant (who Warcraft fans will know is Thrall), but real effort is made to show us something of who Draka is and to make the viewer care about this woman for her own sake. She has a personality—she’s fierce, loyal, and loving, with a nice sense of humor—and her death is legitimately sad, and while we aren’t given much time to mourn her, we also aren’t forced to experience the loss of Draka through the eyes of a male character. Instead, we’re totally denied the reaction of her husband, Durotan, which encourages the viewer to contemplate Draka’s death without regard to whatever manpain it might have caused in some other film and prevents it from being a fridging.

Sure, Queen Taria doesn’t get a lot to do, but the fact that she’s present at all is kind of an achievement after the better part of two decades of Kings of Stormwind having no wives (or mothers) at all. I wasn’t expecting this movie to pass the Bechdel test at all, and Taria’s conversation with Garona is small, but important. Also, it’s worth pointing out that women of color don’t often get cast in the role of the good, gentle, beautiful queen, so one can even make the argument that casting Ruth Negga is quietly significant all on its own. It’s not exactly revolutionary, but you could say that she doesn’t have to do anything necessarily except exist in a space that is usually reserved for white women.

Paula Patton’s turn as Garona seems to be one of the most polarizing parts of the film, though I have to say that most opinions on her performance seem to be negative. However, I completely disagree with her detractors. It’s not Patton’s performance that is bad, though talking around tusks doesn’t help anything. Rather, most of Garona’s speeches are not very well-scripted, and her arc is harmed more than that of any other character by the missing 30 minutes or so of film. Indeed, it feels, over and over again, as if anytime a scene or line needed to be cut short for time, it’s Garona’s part that is diminished. Basically, Garona obviously ought to be the main protagonist of the film, but instead her role was scaled back to make more room for Khadgar or something. As a result, all of Garona’s relationships with other characters feel half-baked, and when it’s important that we feel something about her—the ending of the movie is seriously some Greek tragedy-level stuff—it’s hard to muster up the appropriate level of emotion.

In the end, though, my biggest complaints about women’s representation in the movie are complaints that I’ve always had about the games, particularly World of Warcraft, as well. First, I will forever hate the extreme sexual dimorphism of the non-human characters. Though Draka is definitely portrayed as tough and powerful, as an orc she’s literally less than half the size of the males of her species, who are just ridiculously massive. I’m sure that some people find the “but that’s how Warcraft orcs have always been” argument persuasive, but this is one major way in which the movie could have set itself apart visually from the games. It’s also fairly easily accomplished, since all of the orcs are CGI characters; the filmmakers aren’t limited by anything but their own imaginations (or lack thereof). Second, and most importantly, however, aside from the three named women I’ve discussed, there are almost no visible women in the movie in spite of the Warcraft world being canonically egalitarian. I think I saw one woman knight (or whatever) in Stormwind, but I can’t recall there being any other orc women aside from Draka. Relatively recent studies have found that women (51% of the population) only make up 17% of the people in crowd scenes in popular films, and Warcraft surely falls well below even that sad threshold. This is especially disappointing in a movie that otherwise shows so many marks of consciousness of gender issues.

The rest of the movie is fine, but much of it doesn’t stand out as particularly good or offensively bad. I had high hopes for Daniel Wu as Gul’dan and Clancy Brown as Blackhand, but neither of them were recognizable in their roles. Dominic Cooper was fine as Llane Wrynn, but the Good King is always one of the most boring characters in any movie. Ben Foster was almost comically inscrutable as Medivh, another character who suffers for lack of screen time. Travis Fimmel tried manfully to give Anduin Lothar some depth and gravitas, but is weighed down by awkward writing; his most important relationships—with Llane and Garona—are sadly shortchanged, and a shoehorned in plot concerning Anduin’s son serves more to distract from the character’s story than enhance it.

Finally, Ben Schnetzer’s Khadgar is a little too dull, too bumbling, and generally lacking in personality to be very likeable. He seems intended to be the character whose perspective—as a young man, as an outsider, as a beginning adventurer of sorts—the audience identifies with, but it’s hard to see this magical wunderkind as someone that I’d want to be. If I had to hazard a guess on that score, though, I’d guess that I (a 33-year-old feminist woman) am not exactly the movie’s target audience. If they really want to appeal to me, they ought to have given me sassy silver fox Khadgar from Warlords of Draenor.

Warcraft isn’t a cinematic masterpiece by any means, but it’s watchable enough that I wouldn’t mind going to see it again sans 3D and I’m looking forward to the DVD release. I’m even hoping that the popularity of the movie in China will help make a sequel or two or three happen. Mostly, though, I’m hoping that there’s going to be some kind of director’s cut made available that addresses some of the issues in the theatrical version. That’s the movie I want to see.

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