Monday, June 13, 2016

Warcraft movie: a first look

Now that the Warcraft movie has been out for its opening weekend in the U.S.  It's time to give it first impression.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and would whole-heartedly recommend it to anyone who has ever played and enjoyed WoW.  All the familiar elements, all the rich artistry, all the deep lore is present here and better than ever.  And you owe it to yourself to watch it on the biggest screen you can find, and in 3D.  The art and cinematography are well worth the commitment.  Watching this next year on DVD is not going to be the same, because it's the overall immersive experience you're going for, here.

I loved the development of Khadgar from his early, uncertain theories to his more confident schemes at the end.  I liked the interaction between Khadgar and Lothar, a bond that seemed destined to develop into a lasting friendship.  The kind of friendship that Lothar and Llane were supposed to have.   I like the way that Khadgar has become a major heroic figure within Warcraft overall and our constant companion in Warlords of Draenor.

I also liked the re-structuring of Garona's character as a character awakening to the nobility of humans and striving to maintain her honor.  I like the way the story of her "betrayal" of King Llane was presented and it gave me a better understanding of the things that happened to her subsequently.  I wish that I had seen the movie before those scenes with Garona and Khadgar at his tower in Zangarra in Warlords. The emotional payoff when when we freed her from the influence of Gul'dan would have been exponentially greater.

Watching this movie gave me a much more concrete understanding of each of these characters than I ever had from playing the games alone.  This kind of portrayal makes these characters much more real to me, and whenever I run across references to Lothar or Llane, I will immediately reference these iconic figures.  If I had seen this movie a year ago, my Warlords expansion experience would have been much better.

I think that Blizzard should make more of these films.  A trilogy, at least, through the Second War.

Note that there are heavy spoilers in the following section where I discuss the limitations of the movie.

Many Characters:
There are a huge number of main characters in this movie, and in the short 2 hours we've been given, it's hard to learn them all and begin to sympathize with them.  This is particularly true for someone who has never played anything in Blizzard's Azeroth, but even for people who have a passing familiarity with the game, it's good to have a list of players.  The movie just doesn't have a lot of time to spend on establishing motivations and allegiances, so by the time you've got Durotan and Orgrim sorted out, the movie is well under way and you've got to wonder what else you've missed.  The problem is compounded by the fact that all of these characters are spread across many different groups

For the Humans:
  • Llane Wrynn, King of Stormwind
  • Anduin Lothar (no, not that Anduin), close friend of the king and General of Stormwind's armies.
  • Taria, Llane's wife and Lothar's sister
  • Callun Lothar, son of Lothar
  • Dwarves in Ironforge
  • Visiting Elves
For the Wizards:
  • Medivh, the Guardian
  • Khadgar, a lapsed incipient Guardian
  • the Kirin Tor mages in Dalaran (Antonidas, et al)
For the Good Orcs
  • Durotan, chief of the Frostwolf Clan
  • Ogrim Doomhammer, apparently now Durotan's buddy
  • Draka, wife of Durotan who is great with child
  • Go'el, the newborn son of Draka, later to become Thrall
For the Bad Orcs
  • Gul'dan, warlock and wielder of fel magic.  Leader of the Fel Horde
  • Blackhand, leader of the Blackrock Clan and nominal Warchief of the Horde
  • Garona, a half-orc prisoner of the Orcs, and later their spymaster.

So with 13 characters and additional factions, groups, and organizations, this is simply too many characters to keep track of over a 2 hour film, much less grow close to.  In addition, following so many characters dilutes the impact of events on any single one.

Too much happening in the plot
In reality we were watching two films, with the first being about the Humans vs the corrupt Guardian, and the second about the struggle between the Good and Fel orcs.  Each of these would have been a significant movie on its own, but trying to tell both stories simultaneously in a 120 minute format was simply overwhelming.

In the end, we couldn't develop emotional attachments for any of them.  Nor could we easily follow the twisting machinations of each of these sub-plots. For example, Khadgar went to Dalaran to visit the Kirin Tor and convince them that Medivh was corrupted.  What actually came out of that meeting was never clear, nor was the relevance of what the secret spirit in the cube, Alodi, told Khadgar.  We just didn't have enough time to explain.

Embrace Tragedy
As is usually the problem for Warcraft, there were no clear winners or losers.  No clear resolution of the story, simply a retelling of a series of events.  Looking at this more closely, there were really three storylines being followed here, all of them ending tragically.

The first is with King Llane and Lothar, who want to drive the invading orcs out of Azeroth and keep them from pillaging the humans. Ultimately, they fail to do this during the events of the film, with the dark portal temporarily re-opened allowing countless more orcs to stream through, Gul'dan still very much in power, and the orcs still a major presence.

The second story is with Durotan, the chief of the Frostwolf clan.  He wants to keep his clan safe, keep his family together, and oppose the destructive influence of Gul'dan.  Ultimately, he fails to do this with his clan destroyed, and himself defeated in Mok'gora with Gul'dan.  In addition, his wife Draka also appeared to be killed.  By the end of the movie, Durotan was definitely a tragic figure.

The third story was the betrayal by the guardian Medivh of the humans to the demons of the Burning Legion.  Khadgar managed to discover Medivh's fel taint and destroy him before he was entirely able to transform into a manifestation of Sargeras, preventing the ultimate consumption of Azeroth.  Nevertheless, Khadgar could not prevent the betrayal itself, which allowed Medivh to open the dark portal that gave Guldan and the orcs entry into Azeroth in the first place.

None of these stories are heroic successes, nor are they presented that way in the film.  In fact, the climax of the film is when Lothar returns to the Orc camp to retrieve the body of King Llane and it provides a moment of triumph only when Lothar is able to defeat Blackhand.  Sadly, this is merely a hollow victory, since it means nothing in the overall progress of events.

And finally, we have the story of Garona interwoven among all of them.  Her story is of one who was looking for a place to call home, a place where she could live.  The majority of the orcs rejected her for her half breed status, and when she appealed to Durotan, he could only reply that she would be safer among the humans.  The humans did reach out to her, first through Queen Taria who gifted her with the dagger that Garona would later use to kill Llane, and later through the romantic overtures of Lothar, who would later despise her as a traitor.  In the end, Garona found a place with Gul'dan, the one person she hated the most.

Hers is a wonderful story of tragedy, but it loses its impact among so many other personal tragedies.  More importantly, it does not provide the emotional uplift that a viewer associates with a herioc adventure movie.

In the end, the failing of the movie for Western audiences is one of basic storytelling.  A story places a character in a setting, from which arises a conflict that develops and is resolved.  The problem with the Warcraft film was that in every story the central conflict was unable to be resolved by anything except failure.  Each of the main characters has an ultimate objective that they singularly fail to achieve, except for Khadgar.  By rights, the main character in the story should be the mage, but that certainly isn't the way the director framed the conflict.

Director Duncan Jones was aware of these limitations, himself.
I kinda feel like we’d bitten so much off with what we were trying to achieve. We had to introduce all of these characters, introduce all of this world to people who may not know anything about it. I think the fact that they got the portal closed was enough. You know, whatever happens next will happen next. But that kind of felt like a pretty good chunk size. In two hours, we can get that done. Anything more, you’re kind of running into a convolution of epilogues and of story."  Gizmodo Duncan Jones interview
And this is the reason that it was so badly received by movie critics. They were looking for traditional storytelling with bold conflicts, developing characters, and clear resolutions. Jones was just trying to get the portal closed.

As a long-time player of Warcraft games, I am accustomed to Blizzard's style of storytelling.  Tales must be told in such a way that neither the Horde nor the Alliance are seen to be the clear winners. Clear and decisive resolutions are avoided in favor of open-ended and ambiguous narratives that create the maximum potential for future plotlines.   But that isn't the stuff of heroic fantasy novels and movies.  In fantasy such as the Lord of the Rings, it's important that the good guys win, that honor and heroism are rewarded.  That isn't what you found here.

More prosaically, if audiences were looking for a feel-good, triumphant tale of good overcoming evil, with the heroes coming out all right in the end, they simply weren't going to find it in this film.  Call it complex, subtle, nuanced if you wish, just don't call it a summer blockbuster.

In short, the Warcraft movie was a narrative that delivered the rich collection of lore surrounding the events of the first war, but didn't adequately create a formal Story to frame the events.  Movie critics were looking for a framework that didn't exist.

Watching this convinced me that this was made for WoW fans, and that this was the right choice.  I welcomed these major figures brought to life, and the visualizations of Ironforge and Stormwind and Goldshire and Karazhan.  While it did not have everything, what it did include was done well.