Warcraft, the adaptation of Blizzard’s famous real-time strategy game, is a narratively ambitious fantasy movie that, despite suffering from some obvious problems, fascinates by the complexity with which it structures the narrative arc of its characters.
The movie’s open shot establishes a rivalry between orcs and humans and then goes back in time to tell how it grew: the orcs, having destroyed their own world, crossed a portal to a place called Azeroth, where they immediately went to war with humans, dwarves and elves. However, one of the orc leaders, Durotan (Tobby Kebell), believes that his commander Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) is to blame for the fate of their homeland, and that if no one stops him, their new home will also be doomed.
Warcraft’s prologue works well in presenting the orcs, showing their tribal hierarchy (with clan chiefs) and bestial aspect, while humanizing the protagonist: Durotan appears gently talking with his pregnant wife, Draka (Anna Galvin), worried about the prospect of her crossing the portal with him. It’s a sweet scene, whose dialogs mix warmth with the aggressive personality of the race: “Can you hide your fat belly?” he asks softly, to which she punches him and replies “Better than you can hide your fat head.“
The following scene establishes the central element of the story: the magic called Fel, which offers incredible power to its user but drains the energy of living beings to function. Gul’dan emerges by killing dozens of prisoners and opening the portal through which hundreds of warriors rush across. The camera rises, traversing the portal, while the intense theme song composed by Ramin Djawadi (Game of Thrones) captures the climate of war.
Duncan Jones, however, is not a director who is only concerned with the scale of the action. He does not forget the impact of the deaths, capturing the hand of one of Gul’dan’s victims falling among others, and neither the drama of the characters, quickly returning to the dilemma of Durotan and his wife. In addition, he is also visually inventive in this scene, playing with space perspective during the journey through the portal.
It is a prologue full of information, creating a pattern that the rest of the movie follows with its frenetic pace. Therefore, it is important that the main plot be simple in essence – Gul’dan must be defeated, because his green magic is bad – so the film does not become too confusing.
Thus, Jones has time to build several characters whose stories intertwine. General Lothar (Travis Fimmel), for example, is the narrative center of the humans, with his relation with his son Callan (Burkley Duffeld) and with the king Llain (Dominic Cooper) composing his dramatic arc. The two, though accessory, are not very simple characters: the former wants to prove his worth as a soldier to compensate for his rejection by his father, while Llain wishes to extend to the orcs, if possible, the peace agreement he maintains with the others races – both goals leading them to make sacrifices. All characters in Warcraft follow this pattern, each emerging with their own narrative arc.
Lothar, for example, also finds himself working with a half-orc, called Garona (Paula Patton), whose nature reflects her narrative function: to be a bridge between men and orcs – a bridge built by blood, as symbolized at the climax. Durotan’s friend Orgrim (Robert Kazinsky) also finds himself in the midst of a dilemma: as his friend plans to oppose Gul’dan, to be faithful to him means to betray his own people.
Therefore, despite the amount of characters, few are those who are flat, since, now and then, they challenge their stereotypes. When Gul’dan discovers that Draka is pregnant, for example, the viewers are led to believe that he will respond with violence due to his villainous characterization – his right eye even shines in emerald green, like the Fel –, but are then surprised by a reaction – if still sinister – affectionate towards the child. Gul’dan’s magic can lead him to acts of incredible cruelty, but in the end, he still wants to protect his people.
There is a clear effort on the part of the writers to not create one-dimensional antagonists. The orc Blackhand (Clancy Brown), for example, complains at one point that he does not want to be forced to kill innocents again, while the character who designs the invasion of Azeroth does so with a mixture of good intentions and lack of control over himself. In other words, Duncan Jones avoids a Manichean approach, placing heroes and antagonists on both sides of the war. The real villain in Warcraft is actually the Fel magic, which corrupts and distorts the intentions of the user: it is enough to notice what its two greatest users do to the worlds they want to protect to understand the extent of the damage it can cause. That’s where Warcraft’s narrative ambition lies: fantasy is a genre usually associated with adventure, but movie’s story essentially a tragedy.
This is most evident in the narrative arc of the guardian of Azeroth, Medivh (Ben Foster), in which tragedy manifests itself in one of its most classical formats. The guardian is moved by húbris, believing that he can be more than he is, trying to control forces greater than himself and helping beings beyond those he is destined to save, always rejecting help when it is offered. Medivh is then severely punished for his behavior, being directly responsible for his own ruin.
The character, however, becomes even more fascinating for what is not said about him. Medivh suggests a troubled past and the existence of complex stories behind his motivations, but these remain in the realm of suggestion. He is enigmatic in his interaction with the other characters, leading to scenes fraught with ambiguity: when he opens himself to Garona, would Medivh be revealing that he is her relative or just venting his anguish and acting with affection? When the guardian claims that he wants to save everyone, is he also including the orcs in his plan? Those are questions that are never answered, leaving the character immersed in ambiguity.
The dramatic arc of the guardian is further enriched by being physically manifested in the Golem that he constructs from clay: the creature’s initial purpose is opposed to its true function at the climax, directly reflecting the journey of its creator, while its end complements it symbolically. Medivh’s music theme, in turn, is appropriately melodic and sad, capturing the essence of the guardian’s journey.
In Warcraft, Jones builds a narrative filled with symbolism and hidden clues in the midst of the action. If an attentive viewer looks closely at the scene in which Orgrim relates the presence of statues to the will of the gods, for example, they will notice that, although the dialogue is primarily a joke, it also serves as an alert to take notice of the identity of the only statue present in Azeroth.
The director also works with some interesting ideas, such as making the change of perspective between characters in a scene accompany that of the language they are speaking (Lothar’s English becomes an alien language when the camera focuses on an orc, for example), and making an aerial camera movement that briefly simulates the camera view of a RTS game traveling through the battlefield.
So it’s a pity that Warcraft suffers from some very visible problems. Travis Fimmel, with his soft voice, is competent when he needs to be sarcastic or playful (as in the swift exchange of “It could be a trap”, “It is not “, “It could be “), but in his most dramatic scenes he fails to convey any real emotion. On the other hand, Paula Patton tends to overacting, exaggerating in her facial expressions and always looking much more emotional than she should be.
The editing by Paul Hirsch (The Empire Strikes Back) fails by an abnormal excess of fusions, which give an amateur air to the project and end up suggesting the existence of several last-minute cuts. Incidentally, the film would have benefited from a slightly longer duration, allowing a more in-depth view of how Azeroth works: dwarves and elves, for example, barely appear, dissolving the force of the “For the Alliance!” uttered at the end.
Warcraft is a more ambitious movie that one could assume at first. Bringing a huge range of complex characters and a differentiated proposal for the fantasy genre, the movie is one of the first successes in adapting video games to the cinema.
December 04, 2018.
Originally published in Portuguese on June 17, 2016.
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Anna Galvin, Ben Foster, Burkley Duffeld, Clancy Brown, Daniel Wu, Dominic Cooper, Paula Patton, Robert Kazinsky, Tobby Kebbell, Travis Fimmel.