My Background with Blizzard (feel free to skip to TLDR)
For this review, I should probably divulge a bit of my gaming background (which can help you understand if this review is at all biased). In my youth, I played a lot of real-time strategy (RTS) and turn-based games. Some of my favorites growing up were Panzer General, Final Fantasy Tactics, Romance of the Three Kingdoms IV (and basically anything by KOEI at the time, including the American Revolution-focused one) and even some old computer games like Seven Kingdoms (which I have yet to meet someone else who has played this fun game).
I actually didn’t play my first Blizzard game until well into my teens, but the company has stuck with me. I played Warcraft I, but I had some pretty extensive experience at the time with other RTS games and, quite frankly, I wasn’t that blown away by it. It was fine. It was fun, but I only played it through once before I went to other games. I didn’t play another Blizzard game until I had left high school and my first year of college. One of my friends introduced me to Diablo (which was amazing), and I retroactively played through Warcraft II, which was pretty good, and Warcraft III, which was amazing, and I started creating custom maps and various nerd levels of immersion. Starcraft followed, but for several years, I stopped playing any Blizzard games.
It was several years later that a friend told me about World of Warcraft, and I played that for a few years before leaving the world of Azeroth for ~4 years or so. I was burned pretty seriously by the real-money auction house (RMAH) nonsense in Diablo II back when it was very poorly led, and at the time, I vowed to not play another Blizzard North game. I have kept that vow with Diablo II, even though friends have told me that after the lead developer left, everything got much better. I came back a few years ago and have been raiding and raid leading in WoW pretty much ever since. However, I’m not a lore junky. I really play the games for the real-time strategy aspects of raid leading, rather than caring much for the story.
TLDR: I have played most of the Blizzard games and have a love-hate relationship with them. It’s more love than hate, and the hate is mostly a result of poor management of some of the franchises and a hatred for myself at allowing games to distract me so well from getting meaningful things done. I didn’t remember the plot to Warcraft, the original, as I really wasn’t that enthralled with it at the time, so I wasn’t invested in the characters or setting, really, before I went to the movie.
The Warcraft Movie
For anyone following Blizzard, you probably know that the Warcraft movie was something promised many years ago (2006) and it has essentially taken 10 years to get to the screen due to various production setbacks. After a while, it became a kind of joke–like Starcraft Ghost–that was oft repeated by the gaming masses. However, the movie is being released this weekend, and I got a chance to see a test screening yesterday.
Before I went, I took a look at the Rotten Tomatoes score, which has a current review of 20%–pretty atrocious. I read some of the critics reviews, and I read some of the viewer comments, and I prepared myself for the worst. I almost didn’t see this movie, but I decided to give it a chance.
I was not disappointed. The movie is great for any lover of fantasy and speculative fiction, and I’ll go into why by responding to some of the reviews.
What the critics are saying
I will start with one of the critics that I frequently roll my eyes to the most, Scott Mendelson. If you read through his review, you’ll see that he is heavily biased against video game franchises. He notes his bias towards these kinds of genres, citing Assassin’s Creed in the same breath as Gods of Egypt (which was not a video game property, as far as I’m aware).
To understand the critics’ spectrum, let’s take a look to someone who was using “Lord of the Rings” as a baseline instead of other video game properties. He flatly states in his review that ‘this is not “Lord of the Rings.” It’s barely “Dungeons & Dragons.”‘
This is essentially the main points of concern you will see repeated in critical reviews. It’s another video game movie. It’s trying to be Lord of the Rings but fails. Etc.
Why the critics are dumb
I only have a blog post to really address this, so let me just keep this short. Critics tend to favor movies that 1) glorify preserving nature (e.g., Avatar or basically any movie going against big corporations), 2) have a ridiculous, unforeseen plot that keeps them guessing or that challenges genre norms (this is hard for critics to find because they have experienced so many movies), 3) exposes something deeply human that moves the reviewer (generally needs to show deep emotional connections between people and other people or something insightful about the dangers of people and technology) or 4) have major respect for a director and assume a deep dive of the movie will provide deeper meaning.
Warcraft is not going to fit into any of these categories. 1) It shows a race of beings who destroy an entire world before the movie starts, and only a portion of them seem worried about the effects of this mysterious fel on the environment. It does not punish the Orc people for this wanton abuse of nature, and this offends more liberal sensibilities. If a movie does not rectify such behavior, it’s generally panned by critics. It’s just the truth about liberal critics. 2) It is mostly predictable. It even has a particular, kind-of-awkward love story that you have recently seen in a Hobbit movie–though with different races and I should note that the Hobbit story between an elf and a dwarf came roughly 2 decades after the same scene was basically done in the Warcraft game back in 1994. 3) The movie focuses on the response of humanity to an invading threat. There are people dying all around, and the mechanisms that had once brought safety to the world of Azeroth, are failing them (even the alliances between men, dwarves and elves.) There really isn’t much time to stop and develop close connections, and there were some editing decisions that limit the impact of the attempts at establishing a love story between the two worlds. This is very forgivable as the scope of the movie is sweeping and grand. 4) Duncan Jones has two previous movies under his belt–both with great Rotten Tomatoes scores–but most of the reviewers see this movie as a small blip against him. I think this bias started beforehand because Warcraft is a departure from the types of films Duncan worked on before this film, and critics tend to look unfavorably on that.
It seems like if a director does big budget but is true to what the critic liked about the earlier films, it’s forgivable, but if they make a big budget story that doesn’t try to satisfy the first 3 major critical appreciation categories, then the critical response tends to be very negative. The film still has merit, however, regardless of how the critics viewed the movie as failing in the first 3 categories.
Why you are going to like this movie
The characters and setting are a lot of fun. Medivh? You get how powerful the guy is without any real backstory. He will do things that are extraordinary. You’ll dislike him for certain things, but he is constantly redeeming himself in ways large and small.
The interactions between Anduin Lothar and anyone else. Anduin is essentially like Strider from Lord of the Rings but stronger as a character in basically every way. He’s not yet in power, but he has all the makings of it. He’s not self-doubting (which is one of the more annoying things about Strider in LotR). He makes good decisions you can understand. Honestly, I have always played Horde in these types of games because I think being a bad guy is more fun, but this performance makes me rethink that position.
Garona is a bit of a hit and a miss. I understand how hard this must have been to play, and it’s humorous how the portrayal was done. You will laugh at how blunt, practical, and honest orcs like the Frostwolves can be. It ends up being their bane, but the complexity of the Orcs is a radical departure from Lord of the Rings fare. Orcs in traditional fantasy were not caring, loving, or capable of reason. They were monsters and had a lust for killing humanity that was at points ludicrous and inexplicable. Here, in this story, you are going to understand why, and you are going to root for them and the humans at the same time. Durotan’s portrayal is pretty awesome, and his fight against Guldan is everything it should have been.
Guldan is as powerful as Medivh (if not moreso because of the lengths he will go for power) and his portrayal is both convincing and repulsive (as it needs to be). As someone who did not remember this plot at all (it’s been 2 decades since I played this game), this all played out well for me. I enjoyed the plot, the characters, the amazing powers, etc.
The CGI is some of the best that has been produced for a fantasy film. You are going to love how computer graphics bring these orcs to life. You will believe those are the real actor muscles. You will forget about the teeth being unnatural, and the griffon being a mythical creature who is not really moving so fluidly. The CGI is not overdone. It is immersive. It is used for good effect. The magic system will make sense without you needing it explained to you. It is used, the effects are obvious, and the toll it takes on characters like Medivh and who suffers when Guldan uses his magic are practical, obvious, and reliable.
In other words, the plot makes sense. The magic makes sense. The scale is epic. The love interest is perhaps a bit rushed (I believe editing might have had something to do with this), but the action and story are unique and interesting.
I believe that if you are reading this blog, you are going to like this movie. It was very well made, both from a technical CGI perspective and from a plotting and character development perspective. It doesn’t have the opportunity to say something super important about humanity (at least, not the kind of lesson critics believe movies should have), but it does say something about humanity’s willingness to sacrifice and compromise for the greater good. It also presents Orcs in a way that is relatable and presents a good conflict in the viewer’s mind that justifies the Orcs being seen as both enemies and allies.