WoW Factor: How do we make a good Warcraft movie?

    
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WoW Factor: How do we make a good Warcraft movie?

Sometimes, dear readers, things simply do not line up. I really have a long piece I’m looking forward to doing, and then Blizzard does something terrible (or wonderful, but terrible is more likely these days) and my entire plan gets shot straight to heck as I’m rushing to catch up. Other times… well, I spend some time idly thinking about how to make a Warcraft film, and then Duncan Jones decides to bring the topic back onto everyone’s mind.

Now, understand – as a fan of World of Warcraft, fantasy films, and Duncan Jones as a director (seriously, the man is a really good director, although maybe not such a great writer), I was of the mind that the film was absolute garbage. Could we have gotten a good one? Well, yeah, I think so. And I think some of that would just rely on making decisions that the production staff didn’t seem to want to make… but hey, as long as we’re thinking about it, how do we make an actual good movie based on Warcraft?

To a certain extent, this is one of those questions that is kind of a mug’s game by design. How do you make a good anything movie? You make a good movie, and it happens to be about something specific. Want to make a good Superman movie? Make it a good movie that is about Superman. Thus, asking this question is really more like asking “are there a priori assumptions that would be more likely to lead to the decisions necessary to making a good movie instead of a bad one?”

And in the Warcraft case, yeah, I think there’s a big one, one so big that I think basically every fan is immediately going to have a visceral and negative reaction. You know where you start? You don’t make the movie an existing story.

None. None of them. Not about the first war, not about the second war, not the third war, none of it. You spend absolutely no time setting up and retelling these old stories. Right from the start, this is a new script telling a new story in this universe.

Seriously, cool it.

Yes, I hear you in the back there talking about the iconic stories, but there are two things that absolutely need to be reckoned with there. The first is that these stories were written for and worked within the context of a video game, something that has a very different narrative structure than a film because, well… there’s gameplay in the middle there. The First War isn’t really a “story” in the sense that it was always front and center, but it was part of the grander sweep as you moved through various maps.

The other thing is that when you try to strip everything down and rearranged these characters and stories into a cinematic structure, you wind up with something not far removed from the actual Warcraft film, a mess of stock characters without any real depth or any emotional tissue tying you to them. There’s just not that much depth there.

“But you have to set the stage!” No. You don’t. You honestly don’t, and that’s one of the big advantages of the Warcraft universe. No one needs an explanation of fantasy kingdoms or orcs or trolls beyond one or two establishing lines, especially not one that has that surface accessibility. In 2016, everyone understood what “fantasy world” looked like, and the same is true in 2020. Want to use Draenei? One line about “they look like demons but they’re filled with Light” and bam, general audiences will be able to follow along with the concept pretty easily.

That’s the starting point right there. You don’t try to retell a story from the games, from the RTS on through the MMO. You don’t worry about creating something that has to link in to powerful existing continuity. You try to tell a solid story set in this world with characters made for this film, and you fill it with enough weird visual flourish that non-fans feel like it was neat and fans can appreciate it on an extra level while still getting a good movie out of it.

So what should the actual story be? That one’s more speculative, but I do have some things that seem like no-brainers to me, at least.

Oh my.

First and foremost, you don’t center it on the Alliance vs. the Horde, but you do make that a strong secondary conflict. There are lots of potential enemy groups, but for a first film the Burning Legion or the Scourge are your obvious villains. Whatever story you’re telling, “an Alliance team and a Horde team are both trying to do something that pits them against the Burning Legion/Scourge and in competition with one another” feels like the right broad-strokes idea.

The reason I’m splitting the difference there is that the Scourge offers a lot of comparisons to Game of Thrones, so you have cultural reference, but also a certain amount of fatigue. Do as you will.

Note that when I say “team,” I’m thinking small. It’d be enough, say, to have two Alliance people and two Horde people both chasing a MacGuffin or trying to rescue someone important, enough so you get some actual character dynamics. Heck, you could even have them link up along the way. Orc and troll hook up with human and night elf trying to get the Artifact of Something, the Burning Legion has it, fit in a draenei and an undead along the way in the supporting cast, and you have the pieces in place for it to feel like Warcraft and run for a solid stretch.

On that note: no sequels. No writing for sequels. No teasers, no huge dangling threads, none of that. The focus is on telling a story about this group of characters that is interesting to watch now, leave enough of them around that you can still tell a later story if you want to. Someone should probably wind up dying because it’s thematically on-point, but it’s the “victorious sacrifice” kind of death instead of the “no, I have to go Avenge You” sort of death. Let’s face it, killing someone and also destroying the Bad Thing is kind of on-brand for orcs anyhow.

Does this ensure a good movie? No, as I mentioned; what ensures a good movie is a good movie. But I submit this does at least start from the right place. Instead of trying to shift all of the pieces into place for the next part of the franchise or moving something around so it’s telling a familiar story, it’s a light thing focused on character interactions instead of plot contrivance. Everything’s going to depend on the cast and the script, sure, but it has better odds.

Ultimately, it’s so much speculation; the series had its shot, and it’s pretty clear that the critical and financial drubbing were enough to kill any further projects. (Yes, it was a financial failure; it made $435 million worldwide, but most estimates put it at needing $450 million to break even. Film accounting is complex and I don’t have time to explain all of this.) It’s probably not a huge loss. But hey, sometimes you spend some time thinking about these things, and then it’s back in everyone’s mind again and you might as well write it out.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with a decade of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.

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Sykes

A young elf ranger gets separated from her unit in the plaguelands as the Scourge advance. Hunted by the undead forms of her comrades and lover, she fights to survive and make it to the remnants of Silvermoon, only to find her entire civilization destroyed. Ultimately she turns back and sacrifices her life to protect what’s left from the crack team of now-undead assassins as they track her to the heart of her fallen people. Alone and mortally wounded, she succombs to the effects of wounds and mana addictions under the shadow of a bloodied elven banner.

A voiceover explains that thousands of rangers fell to the Scourge, neither remembered nor thanked by those who survived to see their revenge. But that a future – even if not our own – is always worth fighting for.

A survival story in the style of The Revenant. Don’t explain politics outside of references to undead and the capital city, keep the focus on the elf and her undead assailants until the end, then offer just enough for those who want to know why this story’s sad ending might not be so sad have to go look up WoW lore and get hooked.

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Ryan Allgood

I honestly think it’s actually impossible to make a good Warcraft *movie*.

But a Warcraft *TV show* could be great. Obvious comparisons to Game of Thrones, which (despite misgivings anyone might have about the end) made a much better show than a movie.

That being said, while I actually enjoyed the Warcraft movie more than I anticipated (though my expectations were pretty much rock bottom going into it), my issues with the movie were a few things:

– The humans looked good. The orcs looked good. But god, they looked so damn awful when they were on screen together. It was like two wildly different art styles and aesthetic designs were fighting directly with each other.

– The first war is, in every single way, the most boring part of Warcraft. While I understand they thought it was necessary to explain things, and they did change things to be more interesting, it’s just so…damn…boring. I don’t necessarily think they had to avoid existing Warcraft stories, but they picked the absolute worst one to do.

– I’m so damn sick of humans and orcs. Orcs are super overdone at this point, and humans have always been boring and hyper generic. I understand they “need” to be in the story, but I think spreading around the focus a bit more and making it less just “Humans and Orcs” and making it more “Alliance and Horde” would be way more interesting to me.

– I really think they needed to either go all CG / animated, or all practical effects. The mix of the two just looked very messy and bad. Unfortunately, I don’t think either of these would ever happen. Full CG is still viewed by Hollywood as being “for kids movies” only. And all practical effects is apparently too expensive and time consuming as it seems to basically never be done anymore (even LotR abandoned it).

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Ultimately, I think it would be completely impossible to make a truly good Warcraft movie. I still think they made an enjoyable one, personally, but it was definitely far from amazing.

But I do think a show would be possible. Watching things like Game of Thrones, or even Star Trek Discovery (even though it’s sci-fi), I think they could pull off the aesthetic fine on TV, and I think it would afford them more space to tell a full story and not just focus on Mr. Swordy McGenericson human knight.

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Kevin Smith

It wouldn’t let me edit my comment for some reason. Just wanted to add.

The other biggest thing I can say is don’t try and cover so much story in one movie either. The movie felt rushed and skipped so much of the backstory. If people that didn’t play the game or care about lore before hand don’t know what is going on then they will not enjoy it either.

This would have been a better project to have been a series instead of a movie in my opinion.

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Kevin Smith

It wasn’t the story was bad or telling the story. It was doing the stupid fad, live action stuff. If they had just gone in and done a full CGI movie it would have most likely done a lot better. The mixture of CGI and real people was horrible in the movie. If I can clearly tell every time it changes from one to the other I am not going to enjoy the experience. I look back at the final fantasy movie The Spirits Within and think how far we have come since it was made an how much better they could do today. It’s really sad that they released what they did because it doomed the hopes of getting more.

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Sorenthaz

Eh I disagree with the idea that the story can’t reuse stuff. Much like the game lore was fleshed out through books, one could make a movie off of those books or at least follow that same sort of breakdown/logical flow.

Problem with the Warcraft movie imo is that it was too scatter-brained in that it was trying to focus on multiple characters in multiple locations with too much depth involved.

They could’ve instead focused primarily on Khadgar for example as the main Alliance character and taken us through The Last Guardian where we learn about Medivh, Anduin Lothar, King Llane, and Garona through Khadgar’s perspective. We basically get brought into a world with a guy who’s kind of learning things himself as he goes. Then to kind of get a glimpse of the nefarious shenanigans going on we could sometimes cut to Gul’dan where we would get hints of him working with Medivh and how Durotar doesn’t tolerate Gul’dan’s shenanigans while Blackhand largely ignores Durotar’s concern.

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Zero_1_Zerum

I just watched a two part Indian movie called Bahubali on Netflix. Each part was over 2 hours long, it was probably closer to 5 hours to watch the whole thing. But, it was so action packed and epic, it didn’t feel like 5 hours. I know very little about India, their legends and culture, and that movie was heavily inspired by that. But, I was hooked from the get go, and became interested in finding out more about Indian stories.

What I’d like is video game movies that are like that.

For example, I watched the Warcraft movie. I enjoyed it, I’d even watch a sequel.

But… well, I felt like I might be missing out on a some lore they didn’t mention in the movie, and it didn’t inspire me to want to fill in the gaps. I don’t even know if the story in the movie had much of anything to do with the Warcraft games.

I agree that maybe they shouldn’t have the same exact story of the game. Maybe same world, same characters, but different story.

Best example I can think of is Enter the Matrix, which was a video game. You watch the Matrix movies, you really don’t miss out on anything from the game. But, if you play the game, you get to find out what Niobe and Ghost were up to. The Enter the Matrix story existed alongside the story of the movies.

I could also point to the Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider movies. As far as I know, they weren’t based on any particular Tomb Raider game. But, in my opinion, they did a decent job capturing the spirit of the games. Also didn’t hurt that they cast Jolie as Lara Croft. But, I wouldn’t call them great films, just fun to watch.

To make a good video game movie, maybe they have to make a movie that just happens to be about aspects of the video game. It should be a movie first and foremost.

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Utakata

A lot of issues I see with video game movies is that they need to put on a slow burner, and build the story up. That way even those outside the known can follow along.

But Hollywood doesn’t want that. They want big explosion, dazzlingly CGI and more explosions…and somewhat an assemblance of a plot. Even one that doesn’t really make sense to an outside audience…or even to those on the inside. Because that’s what we get to varying degrees every time one is attempted.

To be fair, I’ve been told the Warcraft movie was better than most. But still didn’t stick with people like Star Wars, MCU or Game of Thrones did. As it failed to capture the imagination and as Mr. Eliot said, had no real characters one can get behind. Least that’s what I understand of it…

…and then there is Uwe Boll. >.<

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Utakata

PS: “Isn’t Star Wars and MCU full of big explosion, dazzlingly CGI and more explosions, Uta?”

To a degree, yes. But they also have plot and characters you can care about. The stuff that’s important relative to the as for mentioned slow burner.

Beside, I never said slow burning had to be boring or the The English Patient in plodding. Just saying. o.O

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Zero_1_Zerum

I celebrated the day that Uwe Boll said he retired.

jimthomasUS
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jimthomasUS

I loved the movie and I’m sad we weren’t able to see the trilogy.

I enjoyed Duncan Jones’ comment that everyone at Blizzard that he worked with on the movie no longer works there.

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Ken from Chicago

I’d argue you could do a retelling of an existing WoW story in movie form. If you can tell WW2, WW1, Civil War, American Revolution War, The Alamo, Vietnam War, Korean War, Iraq War 1, Iraq War 2, etc., you can ruddy well tell any story from World of Warcraft.

That said, execution would be key:

What’s your scope (how long are you telling events, a year, a month, a week, a day, a decade, a century, etc.)?

What’s your focus (a world, a nation, a city, a village, a family, a couple, a person)?

To do a movie well, usually one of these two will have to be shrunk. The more time you cover, the less people you can focus on or the more people you focus on the less time you can cover.

Trying to cover a lot of time and a lot people often forces less depth to a movie (the amount of details of events covered). It can be done but there’s a lot of risk at stake.

Also, covering only a few people over a short period of time can also be a risk of a audiences leaving empty, like there wasn’t enough movie content for the time and money spent.

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jealouspirate

I think a limited TV series would be a much better fit for Warcraft. It gives the story a little more room to breath. I also think it should be 100% animated in 2D – capture that iconic “Warcraft/Blizzard” art style and color palette that were missing from the movie.

I also agree that it should be a completely new story – and something smaller scale. We’re talking about RPG roots here. It should just be a group quest, basically. Have a band of adventurers come together to complete an epic quest. Make it cliche if you want, they could meet in a Tavern, do a dungeon, whatever.