Destroy All Monsters: WARCRAFT Sucks, But Fantasy Doesn't
Recipient of the Matt Brown "Monumental Drop" Award for most deserving second-weekend plunge, Duncan Jones' Warcraft already looks like an afterthought. Rightly so: Warcraft's terrible. Absolutely terrible. It makes Krull look like Dragonslayer. Makes Dragonslayer look like Willow. Makes Willow look like The Hobbit. Makes The Hobbit look like The Lord of the Rings.
I mention Warcraft's lineage in the post-Star Wars fantasy blockbuster world only to point out that it's part of a cycle - one with varying degrees of silliness.
But even having mentioned Star Wars, the real sea change came - of course - with The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001. That was the quantum leap the genre had spent decades waiting for (The Two Towers, and Gollum, would come the following year). You can draw a straight line from FOTR to where we are now - or more precisely, from Peter Jackson's 2000 "internet teaser" for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which unveiled his Massive-driven CGI orc armies storming across the plains of Gorgoroth.
As with most quantum leaps, both Hollywood and the majority of the audience got it wrong. The visual effects, and consequent verisimilitude, of The Lord of the Rings certainly did change the way fantasy could be made on film, but were not the reason the film was revolutionary, or even the reason it kicked off a deluge of FX-enhanced fantasy projects, of which Warcraft is only the latest.
No, The Lord of the Ring trilogy's success, and the success of many fantasy projects since, came from the other side of the coin: the ability to take fantasy seriously while adapting it accessibly for the masses; the decision to treat the source as received history, but not gospel; and the optimistic belief that earnest human drama would translate, regardless of whether the "humans" in question had giant, furry feet.
In those key elements we can see where Warcraft screwed up. Here, I'll mark the passages over again in red:
the ability to take fantasy seriously while adapting it accessibly for the masses; the decision to treat the source as received history, but not gospel; and the optimistic belief that earnest human drama would translate, regardless of whether the "humans" in question had giant, furry feet.
It's those three critical aspects that continue to thrill me in every successful fantasy adaptation, just as much as when I see a Shakespeare adaptation that makes the language sound like something someone would actually say (Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing) instead of, well, Shakespeare (Zieferelli's Hamlet... and Branagh's Hamlet, for that matter). The adaptation, and illumination, of the content is the thing. Adaptation is fiendishly interesting artistic process - which pieces, in which order, drawing what meaning? - and illumination is the greatest achievement these craftspeople, actors and directors and everyone around them, can offer: what does it mean?
Warcraft, arguably, means nothing. In that cadence of fantasy adaptations I mentioned earlier, even the much-put-upon Hobbit trilogy at least mined Tolkien's text to find an interesting throughline about displaced populations - refugees, to put it in eerily relevant contemporary terms - and the way cultures around them grasp at aggression.
Not so much, Warcraft. It really is like watching a cutscene from a video game you've never played and probably never want to. In the most egregious sin a fantasy adaptation can commit - especially given one based on an astonishingly popular role playing game - it doesn't offer an aspirational world, i.e. one that any member of the audience would fantasize about belonging to.
All the great fantasy cosmologies evoke this aspirational aspect. Where do you think cosplay comes from? Ever since at least Star Wars, part of the success of this genre has been the degree to which the story is all well and good but the worldbuilding is a feat in itself, positing an alternate reality that seems so gall-darned nifty that you're looking for the nearest teleportation portal to get you there.
There are literal teleportation portals in Warcraft, but if I saw one on the horizon I'd run the other way. Everything in Warcraft world looks like it would basically suck. Sex would suck - the movie opens on two orcs cooing about their imminent baby, but envisioning the night of their coupling recalls that time I saw daddy rhino mount mommy rhino at the zoo and all the children started screaming. Getting around would suck - unless you have a griffin, but even then, you apparently have to jump out a window to get on one, and how many times does that fail before you stick the landing? Getting dressed in the morning would completely suck, because good lord, look what these people wear!
I dunno. Maybe in videogameland, Warcraft's worldbuilding feels different. But the "received history" aspect of fantasy adaptations seems to be lacking, too. Critical to the mode of fantasy is the process, or at least suggestion, of the mediation from our world to the fantasy world - a literal rabbit hole in Alice's case, or all the more figurative, elusive rabbit holes that followed. "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away" is a rabbit hole (and quite a specific one, actually); the heraldry and hierarchy of Westeros is another, suggesting a relationship to a world we understand even when we do not.
We speak of the sensational decision to film The Lord of the Rings in New Zealand standing in as Middle-Earth as though Peter Jackson were merely creating the cinema's greatest travel brochure (he did that, as well); but the real genius - one that the Hobbit trilogy perhaps lacks - was not in the cost-savings or near-at-handness of Jackson's back yard, but rather in the degree to which those recognizeably tangible landscapes assured us that for all the ways Middle-Earth was not like ours, it was also very much like ours. (In Tolkien's case, a presumed "lost history" of British myth - stuck somewhere between Beowulf and Chaucer.)
The strength of fantasy, in any medium, is not in whole-cloth creation of totally imagined (read: CGI) worlds, but in articulating an idea about a world by tweaking and skewing the familiar. We see glimpses of this in Warcraft - politically, at least, it is somewhat more sophisticated than most "us vs. the bad guys" fantasy films - but all of it is buried under so much unintelligent surrealism (and bad CGI) that it's hard to know where to look in any given frame, let alone what or who to care about.
This last is the ultimate failing. I've come to accept, over a lifespan as a fan of this genre, that there really are people who fundamentally do not "get it" - for whom Ents and Wookiees and White Walkers, and any other truly fantastical layers on otherwise analogizeable fantasy worlds and storylines, are so fundamentally distracting that these people can simply never access the basic human drama at the heart of the story.
Warcraft, then, is a useful tool in empathy for those of us among the fantasy-prone; I defy anyone who knows his Elbereth from his Alatar to not at least see, in Warcraft, the edges of what it's like to feel completely left out of a fantasy world. But the lack of recognizeable human characters and concerns - which I'd argue pretty much all the other fantasy works I've mentioned here do, indeed, contain - is what ultimately stumps Warcraft, and in so doing, buries the value of the genre.
Because it is those recognizeable human concerns that render fantasy so useful: not because we can tell normal human stories in bizarre circumstances, but because we can attack complex dramas in oblique ways and with precisely-curated sets of rules, allowing for outcomes and dynamics not possible in the real world. This gives fantasy the opportunity to articulate anxieties and concerns in a framework that allows those concerns leg room and white space; solving those puzzles becomes the ultimate boon, in the Joseph Campbell sense, that we can all bring back to our ordinary worlds. That's a quest worth undertaking.
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on Letterboxd.