It is not an understatement to say that I don’t “get” video games. Don’t get me wrong, I understand perfectly that they are increasingly becoming a singular art form, with narratives and visual design to put the best live action media to shame. But they will be an art form I’m always going to be regretfully ignorant of, as I am terrible at playing them. Nothing irritates me more than my inability to play them, although the confusion of my friends as to why I’m not grasping something so obviously simple runs close.
In many respects, Warcraft is the most faithful cinematic adaptation of any movie to date. Not only does it appear to get all the details of the game’s sprawling universe correct, but it also replicates the feeling of playing a video game. After being initially blown away by the distracting visuals, I became bored and confused very quickly, whilst acknowledging that fans of this particular franchise would probably love it regardless. At least in this respect, the fact it isn’t likely to be met with vitriol by fanboys makes it the best video game adaptation to date, without it actually being any good.
Director Duncan Jones has previously made two brilliantly mind bending science fiction movies, Moon and Source Code. Both were good enough to make me assume that an adaptation of a video game I only know about from a South Park parody would be something worth watching if he was the one making it. Alas, I was wrong. But as a filmmaker who became interested in films via the fantasy genre after visiting his dad on the set of Labyrinth as a child (did I mention Jones is David Bowie’s son?), a film like Warcraft has always been inevitable in his filmography.
The only problem is this isn’t a good addition to the fantasy genre pantheon. It aims to reignite the same mythological sub-genre of fantasy movies that was popular in the eighties, but possesses a self-seriousness that ensures it will never be a cult classic like Conan or Krull. A fairly simple narrative is stretched to the point of inexplicability by a plethora of characters with nonsensical names who talk only in exposition consisting almost entirely of incomprehensible jargon. Even reading the plot synopsis back is giving me a headache, as it is almost entirely nonsense about “guardians” and the “realm of Azeroth”, involving a bunch of character names that sound like Norwegian black metal bands.
Jones has clearly tried to make the film accessible to a non-nerd audience, but his plans are in vein. He makes the brilliant decision of ignoring the usual good/evil divide of the fantasy genre and focuses on making each character empathetic in some way. It helps to give emotional heft to the more shocking narrative developments in the film’s later stages; you don’t fully understand the intricacies of why allegiances are broken and feuds come into play, but Jones goes some way to make it palatable in a strictly emotional manner.
But it still feels like an entire mythology has been crammed into too short a time frame. Imagine if, instead of being adapted into a series, Game of Thrones had been made as a film. Without the room to let the characters breath, you never truly get to understand them or the story around them. With so much crammed into one film in the hopes of setting up a franchise, a sequel is teased that I assume will never materialise and there is never any space to truly understand the specifics of the character plights, let alone know who they are.
It is a shame, as the opening sequence suggests a carefully paced film that actually manages to find the art in replicating video game images for live action. A stunning tracking shot, that slowly builds up to a fight scene we never see, is the sort of delicate, understated touch that a terrific genre filmmaker like Jones is effortlessly capable of. This film is not the best way for him to utilise his directorial flair – and Warcraft instantly becomes the bastard love child of Fury Road and Lord of the Rings that nobody ever asked for, or needed.