Movie Review: Warcraft (2016) *Visually Stunning but Ultimately Hollow*

Travis Fimmel, Warcraft

Video game fans are hoping the endless parade of crap adaptations of their favorite games will cease this December with the promising-looking Assassin’s Creed.  Quite frankly, with the deep source material, plot, and Oscar-caliber acting in that film, if it doesn’t work, we’re never going to get one that will.  Warcraft, looked like it might break the curse six months earlier.  It had a great look, a HUGE built-in fanbase, and an acclaimed director in Duncan Jones (Moon).  Instead the movie was critically reviled (28% on Rotten Tomatoes), and would have been an utter financial disaster were it not for a very strange phenomenon that we’ll get to later.  Now that the film has hit home video, is Warcraft worth a look?  It’s definitely worth a LOOK (note how I am stressing that word as if it will be important later on in my rambling).

WarcraftYou have to say this for Blizzard Entertainment: they don’t make a lot of games, but they don’t ever make bombs.  Essentially they’ve released three major titles in the last 20 years, mostly for PC gaming: Warcraft (which lead to World of Warcraft), StarCraft, and Overwatch, which was their first console game.  Released earlier this year, it’s likely going to win most Game of the Year awards based on reviews.  So they’re brilliant at creating a game which can become a universe that sucks players in for years.  World of Warcraft, is a MMORPG (massive multiplayer online role playing game) in which you quest live with other people in the magical land of Azeroth.  Every few years, Blizzard will release a new expansion to the game and it has millions of players globally.  It’s easily one of the most successful video games of all-time.  The problem with Warcraft the movie is, it was made exclusively for the people who play the game.
Azeroth is a land that has a TON of story behind it by this point.  Warcraft could have been milking stories in that land for decades, but instead of using the film to familiarize the billions of people who do NOT play WoW (World of Warcraft), it dumps you into a story that’s aimed exclusively at hardcore players of the game.  No foundation is built for the casual moviegoer as to what this fantasy world is about, how it works, what are the rules, things that The Lord of the Rings did brilliantly in an eight minute prologue to Fellowship of the RIng.  I am a hardcore gamer.  I play a LOT of video games, though not WoW (more out of fear it would consume my life wholesale).  I have a better-than-average understanding of Azeroth and the dynamic between the races and so on, and the plot of this film just lost me.  It’s not that it’s terribly complex.  The Orc homeworld is dying so they open a portal into Azeroth and start smashing humans CAN THERE BE PEACE?????  It’s that everything involved with that plot is phrased in terms of WoW inside baseball, and the acting in the film (with the exception of Ben Foster and Toby Kebbel) is not good enough that you want to do homework and find out what this or that meant.  That’s not my biggest beef with the plot, that I will save for the end and it is a minor spoiler so be warned.  But let’s talk about what is extremely good in the film: it is eye candy galore.
This film is freaking stunning.  If you’re a fantasy nut, this is just stuff you’ve always wanted to see.  Huge orcs that are photo-real (except for Draka…why is every Orc looking spectacular and they leave one character that’s a CGI eyesore) smashing things with warhammers, knights flying to floating cities on gryphons, stunning magic from mages (the Orc mage was the most visually stunning thing in the film), and giant battles.  You could put the thing on mute and just enjoy looking at it.  If that sort of thing tickles your giblets, then Warcraft is worth renting because it deserves a F/X Oscar nod.  If it weren’t for The Jungle Book, I’d say it’s the best F/X film of the year.  However, at the end of the day the F/X are the only memorable part of this film which (and bail now if you don’t want a spoiler) is NOT A COMPLETE FILM!  It’s an episode.  It’s clearly intended to start a giant franchise and nothing is left resolved at the end of the film with any permanence.  I hate that kind of arrogance when there’s no product to back it up.  But we may yet get a Warcraft sequel because of the most bizarre box office break-even/minor profit story in a long time.  I’ll let Forbes break down the business of it:

Now that the release is nearly complete, we can take a little stock in just what the heck happened with Warcraft. The movie has played out around the world, and its current $430.1 million global cume is pretty close to where it will finish. It has been a weird run for the Legendary/Blizzard/Atlas/Universal production, as the $160 million picture mostly flopped around the world only to make a killing in China. It earned a record-crushing 89% of its money outside of North America. In the end, Warcraft is something of a wash. It grossed a lot, but it didn’t make money, and it utterly failed at its intended purpose.

Like a number of big-budget movies opening these days, Warcraft had two specific goals. First of all, it had to make money. And on that scale, it is indeed a failure, albeit less of one than many of us presumed once upon a time. Even with a whopping $220 million in China, which amounted to over half of the film’s $430m worldwide cume, the $160m production is still a slight money loser (around $15m so says The Hollywood Reporter). The film made around 2.675x its production budget (not including marketing costs), which means it may break even down in post-theatrical. But it is not a breakout smash hit by any definition. Investors don’t throw money into big budget movies to just break even.

If not for the miraculous business in China, this would have been a disaster for all parties. Yes, the film earned $220.8 million in China alone, which makes it one of the bigger release ever in said territory and the sixth-biggest Hollywood import behind Zootopia, Jurassic World, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Transformers: Age of Extinction, andFurious 7.  But, even in China, its legs were painfully short. It earned almost all of that money ($156m) in the first five days of release, with $91m (41%) coming just in the first 48 hours. It played to fans of the game while alienating (or failing to capture the interest in the first place) of general audiences. That’s arguably what happened around the world ($162.5m not including China) as well as North America.

Warcraft marks perhaps a watershed moment in film, where the US box office is not even the center of a film’s target audience.  Or it could be a fluke.  Either way, it’s possible there will be a Warcraft 2, but I doubt Duncan Jones is willing to sink another four years into it, and it undoubtedly will have a smaller budget which will undercut the visuals, which is the only thing working here.  They work so well, and I’m such a fantasy nerd, I almost want to give it the tiniest of positive scores, but I can’t.  This just isn’t the film that gamers long for to bring the stories we play over to the big screen.

3 thoughts on “Movie Review: Warcraft (2016) *Visually Stunning but Ultimately Hollow*”

  1. I am going to make a confession. When I was a kid I was obsessed with the Mario games in all their permutations, and was really good at them too, and when the movie came out I actually liked it. I recognized what the filmmakers were trying to accomplish. They were the people who had invented Max Headroom, and they must have realized early on that there wasn’t really a movie to be found in the games. So they created a kind of Mario collage on film. The world of that movie was like Blade Runner meets Roger Rabbit, but it was overstuffed with images and situations from the games, and even the sound effects. It was obvious that the filmmakers were not only familiar with the games, but were Mario experts. And as a Mario fan, I found it rewarding. Don’t get me wrong, I understand why the two stars said they were drunk during the shoot, but the best was made of an impossible situation with that film.

    These days, I do not understand why the Video Game Movie is such a tough nut to crack. I am not a gamer as you know, but I have had friends and aquantences who were, and I’ve seen firsthand how amazingly cinematic these games are. I know I’ve said this before, but I do not understand why the entertainment industry is not already going full-on synergistic, releasing 4D movies in the actual theaters, and R-rated, cerebral cuts for the diehard nerds/fans to stream, and playable video game versions of the same movies, and TV show versions on Netflix that flesh everything out, and even advertisements that double as original entertainment content in their own right. I think it’s coming though.

    Brave new world.


    1. Assassin’s Creed looks amazing and true to the game, while having two Oscar winners and another nominee starring, so I’m so so hopeful that people will see how deep the plots of these games get. After that we have Alicia Vikkander’s Tomb Raider to look forward to, and the rebooted franchise has taken it from a boob joke franchise, to the premiere action adventure franchise on consoles and with Vikkander’s talent, Lara could become an iconic movie action hero. Why there has not been a HALO movie completely baffles me. They’ve actually kind of missed the peak of fandom for the franchise, but a game that ripped into that deep world would be a slam dunk. Mass Effect has a science fiction universe that would support a TV show or movie series. It’s universe is every bit as deep as any created short of Star Trek and Star Wars and Dune. I have a feeling Affleck is going to take some of the tone of the Arkham series into his solo Batman film. Gears of War; would be hard R, but that didn’t stop Resident Evil, which is the most successful video game movie franchise (not good, but most successful). The BioShock franchise has some of the richest storytelling in any medium. There are literally dozens of video game franchises that could make the jump, JJ Abrams is working on a Portal movie and that could be really exciting, but you have to 1)sell the visuals, 2)hire real talent, 3)stick to what the made the games successful while allowing newcomers to catch on without drowning them in insider speak like Warcraft did, and 5) Hollywood needs to take the effort seriously and not half-ass it. The fact that Oscar caliber actors are entering these films seems to indicate they are because it’s as big an IP grab bag as comics are and more diverse. No, Tetris, is not a good example, but God of War, Uncharted, Final Fantasy (very tricky; probably better as a TV show because of the dense plots….well, the dense plots that make sense), and the list goes on and on. Assassin’s Creed is so promising because it does not depend on a commitment from Fassbender. What they’re after are the memories of certain bloodlines and that’s a portal into any kind of historical setting you want. I love video games, I love movies, I just want those crazy kids to get together!


      1. The trailer for Assassin’s Creed looks good. I mean really good. SO far above your average sci-fi action movie.

        It’s great that you have someone like Abrams jumping into the fray. I’m pretty sure there’s only one key to having great, successful video game movies: MAJOR FILMMAKING TALENT getting behind them. James Cameron, Peter Jackson, ect. That level of visionary player. Otherwise, Hollywood will always view this stuff with skepticism, and it will all be compromises and half-measures. Elaborate, expensive sci-fi/fantasy worlds with hyper-complicated mythologies will always have trouble getting made, whether they’re based on video games or not.


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