Movies adapted from video games are a disreputable genre, and Warcraft isn’t likely to change that. Critics savaged the movie when it opened last Friday, competing to see who could come up with the most withering put-down and who could be first with the laborious punch line “Game over.” Of course, everything is a competition now: the gaming of America, which began with the emergence of team sports in the early 20th century and accelerated with the advent of video games in the 1980s, has reached its logical conclusion in a presidential contest destined to play out as a real-time strategy game. Fox News and MSNBC are indistinguishable from ESPN, focusing on the candidates’ strategy to the exclusion of all else. Already the candidates hunch over their phones, firing off Twitter insults at each other and checking their TV screens for evidence of a direct hit.
For the uninitiated, Blizzard Entertainment’s Warcraft is one of the giants of genre, a medieval-fantasy franchise whose inaugural game, Warcraft: Orcs & Humans (1994), helped popularize multiplayer gaming. The story was the usual D&D stuff: in the land of Azeroth, a human kingdom masses for battle against the invading Orcs, who have taken advantage of a space portal to escape from their own screwed-up planet. (You know the Koch brothers are working on something like this right now.) Two sequels followed before Blizzard debuted World of Warcraft (2004), an online version that’s become the most popular MMORPG (“massively multiplayer online role-playing game”) of all time. Over its lifetime the subscriber-based game has logged more than 100 million accounts, and with that kind of fan base the movie Warcraft doesn’t have to be any good—all it has to do is be. This past weekend it grossed $286 million, more than 90 percent of that outside the U.S.
These kind of numbers explain why even dramatic filmmakers are trying to capture the aesthetics of video games. George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, a king-size hit for Warner Bros. last spring, is a perpetual-motion machine with all the hurtling momentum of a first-person shooter game. Earlier this year it was followed by STX Entertainment’s Hardcore Henry, which producer Timur Bekmambetov (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) and writer-director Ilya Naishuller created by editing together stuntmen’s point-of-view footage, collected with camera helmets, into a supposedly continuous take. You can look forward to more of this in the cinema of the 21st century: continuous action will become the norm, and stasis will become as quaint as silent-movie intertitles.
The biggest thing still dividing cinema from video games is the character, a concept that has always been central to the dramatic experience but matters less in gaming. The Warcraft universe includes dozens of characters, fleshed out with fastidious backstories and given voice by professional actors, but every player knows that he himself is the true protagonist of the story. After all, the whole attraction of strategy games is agency, the ability to shape the action. When you’re participating in that action, the archetypal sword-and-sorcery characters may serve just fine, but what happens once you’re stuck in a darkened theater gaping at them, with nothing to do except feed popcorn into your trap? How long would anyone want to sit around watching other people enact a game?
Director Duncan Jones understands the importance of characters. His first two features—Moon (2009), about an astronaut losing his grip on reality near the end of a three-year lunar mission, and Source Code (2011), in which a soldier keeps reliving the same eight minutes in order to isolate and prevent a terror attack—branded him as an exemplar of high-concept sci-fi. Yet those movies would never have worked without their strong, willful protagonists, played by first-rate actors (Sam Rockwell in Moon, Jake Gyllenhaal in Source Code). Brought into the Warcraft movie to replace Sam Raimi, Jones came down hard on the script’s flat characterization. “It was the stale fantasy trope of, humans are the good guys, monsters are the bad guys,” he told the New York Times. “It just didn’t capture in my gut what made Warcraft, the idea of heroes being on both sides.”
Jones has remedied this somewhat, polarizing his narrative between the valiant and noble Sir Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), of the human kingdom of Stormwind, and the valiant and noble Durotan (Toby Kebbell), an Orc chieftain of the Frostwolf clan. During a skirmish with the Orcs, Lothar and his men capture the green-skinned Garona Halforcen (Paula Patton), a half-breed torn between the clashing cultures, and her dilemma threatens to make her a three-dimensional character. But there are so many other characters, the imagined cultures are so dense, and the imperative of keeping it all moving for two hours is so strong that no individual’s story can break through. Video games allow each person to escape into an invented world, but movies face a more daunting challenge: getting the world to escape into an invented person. v