Worldbuilding Through Characterization
 

Worldbuilding Through Characterization

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One Way by S. J. Morden
 

One Way

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Warcraft – Movie Review

Warcraft (movie poster)Based on the video game series by Blizzard and its tie-in novels, Warcraft (alternatively titled Warcraft: The Beginning) is a fantasy film directed by Duncan Jones, released in 2016.

Azeroth, a once peaceful realm, now faces war as a race of warrior orcs invades, fleeing their own dying world. Fel magic sustains a portal that connects the two worlds, and soon both sides find themselves in a battle for their futures. We follow four main characters – Durotan, chieftain of the Frostwolf Clan of orcs; Garona, a half-orc taken prisoner by the humans; Anduin Lothar, human military commander of the Stormwind Kingdom; and Khadgar, a human mage investigating fel magic, as their paths soon become interwoven and they fight for the survival of their world. The story is accessible to both gamers and people who have no knowledge of the games or the world at all; I went to see the film with a large group including players and non-gamers and everyone enjoyed it.

There are a lot of things to like about this film, especially for a fantasy fan. If the concept sounds like an excuse for an epic battle between orcs and humans, that’s because that’s what it is – yet this is far from all the film offers. I found the story intriguing and exciting; there is a lot of fast paced action and fun movement from place to place, with colourful locations and some great set pieces. This is a film you should go see if you want to enjoy yourself in an unapologetically high-fantasy world full of magic spells, fantasy races, big swords (and even bigger armour), strange creatures and fantastical scenery. It’s fun and it’s entertaining.

Warcraft Movie (screenshot 1)

There is a lot of CGI in this film, and on the whole I thought it was done extremely well, really complementing the feel of the film as well as the story they were trying to tell. In particular, the orcs are really brought to life with impressive movement and facial expressions, which is vital for telling their story with the emotion it deserves. In fact, the visuals in general are stunning in this film, from the wonderful scenery and cities to the armour and creatures. Bold choices, bright colours, CGI, music and pacing all largely come together into a cohesive whole that feels very carefully put together. There are also plenty of nods included to the games themselves, not just the original on which the story is based, but also World of Warcraft, with a few in-jokes and references scattered around to make gamers smile.

People who have played the Warcraft games will have a good idea what to expect from the fantasy world and characters portrayed in this film. Professional critics, on the other hand, as quickly becomes apparent from their reviews, had no idea what they were in for. It’s no understatement to say that Warcraft has been utterly trashed by critics, yet Warcraft is now the highest-grossing video game adaptation yet. It would be easy to say that any success was driven only by the fanboyish loyalty of gamer fans, but I don’t buy that.

Warcraft Movie (screenshot 2)

Azeroth is not Middle Earth, with its sense of mystery and graceful beauty, and Warcraft is certainly not Lord of the Rings, though many of the critics seem confounded by their attempts to understand it in these terms. Neither is Warcraft like Game of Thrones – where Westeros is gritty and grounded, Azeroth is bright and technicolour, with magic saturating every scene. This is high fantasy, closer to Dungeons and Dragons and sword and sorcery than to the epic fantasy that has broken into popular culture in recent years. It’s…well, nerdier, unapologetically so, and the film not only embraces the different atmosphere that goes hand in hand with this kind of fantasy, but also the story’s roots as a video game – from the stylised visuals, sound and music, right down to the bright, oversized armour and weapons, the film just feels like the games. When spells are cast, there is no ambiguity or doubt as to their effect. The spells here are effective and visible – we see lights and portals, runes and symbols (and sheep). I loved all of this; I felt like a child again who has just discovered fantasy, amazed and delighted by a rich fantasy world full of magic and charm.

I can’t help but feel that it is this aspect of the film, its joyful embrace of both a high-magic fantasy setting and its video game roots, that critics are so baffled by: “with little concern for all those already perplexed at the mention of orcs and mages…” “…the inherent ridiculousness of the commodity they’re working with” Variety; “…turn an escapist fantasy on its silly head” Rolling Stone; “…the director who, against the odds, has mined a watchable movie out of an entertainment franchise that started with a video game” New York Times. For them, the video game source material is something to be improved and overcome; for the filmmakers, on the other hand, it’s something to be delighted in and proudly displayed. For me, the film’s obvious love for the games is a large part of what made it such a satisfying movie experience.

Warcraft Movie (screenshot 3)

But in their haste to dismiss the ‘silliness’, it feels like many of the critics have overlooked some of the film’s more surprising and unique aspects. Warcraft is largely an action focussed blockbuster rather than a character study, no doubt about that, but there is a depth to the plot, which follows both sides of the conflict – orcs and humans – with what feels like equal attention and sympathy, a depth that is often lacking from fantasy involving ‘ugly’ creatures like orcs and goblins. Even Tolkein’s orcs are little more than a race of monsters that can be fought without any moral anguish. It would be so simple for the orcs to be the bad guys of this story, but neither side of the conflict is presented as right or wrong. Instead, there are individuals on both sides who are noble and honourable, who are fighting for the future hopes of their people, individuals on both sides who are suspicious, selfish, ambitious or twisted by forces beyond their control. Both sides have heroes and villains. Loyalties shift and split as characters come to understand their enemy a little better. These characters are acted well throughout, especially the half-orc Garona and the orc chieftain Durotan, who capture the complexities of their positions and divided loyalties very well.

The film, of course, does have faults. There are some issues with the pacing at points – although the breakneck speed does complement the feel and keep up a sense of excitement and urgency throughout, it also means that no character or place or plot point is really dwelled on for long, which doesn’t let us get deeper into the background or pause long enough to really share characters’ emotions or to get to know them fully. It also means that the constant moving between fantastic locations and set pieces could become a little overwhelming for viewers who are completely unfamiliar with the setting or the high-fantasy concepts. The characters aren’t as fleshed out as we might have come to expect from our fantasy lately – this is largely a plot and action driven film. But while it would have been nice to get a little deeper into the feelings, lives and motivations of all the characters, they are far from flat.

Warcraft Movie (screenshot 4)

I thought this was a good film – I really enjoyed it, and I would absolutely recommend it for fantasy fans as well as for fans of the game. It’s fun, entertaining and tells a story that I think is worth telling. The characters are appealing, the visuals stunning, and the battles exciting. For gamers, the love for the source material shines through, and everything about the style of the film, from the colours to the clothes and creatures, will conjure up a familiar world around you. Most of all, it brought me a feeling of joy that I haven’t felt in a while at seeing a true high-fantasy, high-magic setting brought to life.

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2 Comments

  1. Avatar Noneofyourbusiness says:

    Sheesh. Those critics really display their ignorance of the franchise, if not the genre.

  2. Avatar Chris says:

    Excellent, well written review here. Of the many reviews I have read since seeing the movie only a couple I have felt were written by someone who actually appreciates fantasy for fantasy. Not someone who wants fantasy movies to have the feel of the Christopher Nolan Batman movies. This review by far went into the most depth & as a former long standing player of all things Blizzard I absolutely loved the movie & am very excited & hopeful that multiple sequels will be made as I think they will only get better as more of the story is told. Looking forward to buying it on Blu-Ray as well, really hoping for an extended/directors cut at some point even if it doesn’t happen immediately.

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