Review: Warcraft Proves Why Video Game Adaptations Rarely Work

By June 22, 2016Reviews

Warcraft is the latest attempt at making a film version of a beloved video game, and for me at least, it’s less a disaster than you might imagine. Apparently, I’m in the minority as many critics have touted this film as the worst movie of the summer. While some complaints and criticisms are valid, the genuine vitriol and ferocity seems a little unfounded. The director Duncan Jones' previous works has been well-received and it is apparent in this film that there is genuine talent and effort on display. To tout a film as a failure seems a little harsh given the clear amount of ambition on screen. The sets, CG, and costumes are amazing and well-crafted. By far the greatest performances in the film are the Orcs due to both the voice acting and motion capture expertise. In fact, when looking at the movie as a whole, it becomes apparent that Jones' focus was on the larger themes and not so much on the smaller details. The real problems come from the human characters since their story is frankly not as interesting and their acting not on the same level as the computer-generated Orcs. Given the sheer impressiveness of motion capture work in film and video games over the last decade, that last statement ought to worry actors. 

The other minor issues stem from the fact that there was so much dense lore packed into the movie. Without any real introduction into the mythology, it becomes quite a burden for the audience to follow. Unless you've played the games or read the novels, then there's a very steep learning curve necessary for investment in the plot. It truly is fascinating to see a film that puts so much emphasis on narrative and not much on characterization. Not to mention that the film is overly serious, with only tiny bits of humor thrown in. Characters and humor are especially important for films this grandiose and otherworldly. They help the audience connect with the story and understand everyone's motivations. These issues aside, there is one glaring flaw that is not entirely the fault of Jones – the editing. Supposedly, there was forty minutes cut from the final edit and – oh boy – does it show. There are many hard cuts and flagrantly out of context scenes that only further complicate the plot. Jones has gone on to state that there will be a director's cut that will be the original two hours and forty minutes – I am looking forward to it.

Perhaps the broader issue that Warcraft raises is whether or not the possibility of a good or even great video game film even exists. The controversy surrounding this movie seems to flow from two sources: anticipation and lowered expectations. The trailers were decent and the brand well-known, so thus it garnered the attention of both fans of the source material and the curious movie-going public alike. Critics, on the other hand, seemed to be mostly rolling their eyes at the abundance of CGI and certain precocieved notions surrounding narrative in games. Their mild prejudice is not entirely unjustified since the filmography of video game adaptations has been mixed to say the least. Then again, it is tough to judge a genre when the majority of the films thus far have been helmed by Paul W.S Anderson and even worse Uwe Boll. Anderson's Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil series have not done well critically but they are regarded as fun films in certain circles. Many still consider Mortal Kombat to be the greatest video game adaptation, despite the risk of damning with faint praise. Anderson's stories are ridiculous, but at least they make sense and they emphasize action which he does pretty well.

Uwe Boll, on the other hand, has never made a film that wasn't awful. The level of quality his films strive for would be at the bottom of any genre – not to mention this one. The creation of his films are rarely motivated by anything other than money given the negligent craftsmanship without any regard to the source material. In fact, his entire filmography could be summed up in one scene from his House of the Dead adaptation: the moment when the protagonists stand in a single-file line shooting at zombies. The scene itself is simple enough and during the action there are segments of the actual game interjected. The icing on the cake of this already absurd moment comes from the dolly tracks, which are clearly visible in the background.

The reason that I mention these two directors is that they represent a flaw that extends throughout the whole genre. Both are prime examples of when a studio and the game developers only care to make money in the sleaziest and laziest way possible. Boll's films truly epitomize this concept but there have been plenty of video game movies that follow suit as well. The Super Mario Bros., Double Dragon, The Lara Croft series, Max Payne, The Hitman series, and so on all are excellent examples of when too many corporations just do not care.

Admittedly, it is a mistake to generalize the problems of video game films to just incompetent directors and uninterested studios. There are many other issues hindering this genre and one of them is the process of adaptation itself. Adaptation requires a lot of effort because there are many decisions that need to be made. What themes if any should the adaptation use of the source material? What characters should be utilized? Is there a need to change anything about the characters? If there are multiple stories then what elements or plot points should be used? These are tough questions and they are even further burdened by the schematics of video games.

Video games by their very nature are meant to be interactive and by removing that component, the material loses some of its charm. Quantic Dream created a video game called Heavy Rain that was about several characters interacting with the circumstances of a child murderer. There were many praises of the story and innovation for essentially being an interactive movie. There have even been various reports that it will even be developed into a film. I have reservations about this idea because I own and have played the game. It is a nice and an exciting ride but that is primarily because it is interactive and if that part is removed then it is just a straightforward crime thriller with various plot holes.

To be fair, it is possible to change so much of the source material that it could stand on its own but then that might be a bad business decision. Fans of the video game expect to see recognizable elements in the film and the studio would want to capitalize on that desire. Angry Birds was another video game film that people thought might break the curse. Some critics praised how it began and that it was genuinely a fun family film. However, they said that the movie fumbled when they had to incorporate gameplay – i.e. they had to show the birds getting in a slingshot and shooting themselves at the pigs.

Video game adaptations may be tougher than adapting something like a novel, but they're hardly impossible. Not too long ago many believed that adapting a comic book into a film was a ridiculous proposition. There were heaps of terrible comic book films until some directors, writers, actors, and studios began to take the projects more seriously. The real funny thing is that while there is so much debate on whether it is even feasible to make a good video game movie there has actually been one. Street Fighter II: the Animated Movie (animated in Japan) is a great martial arts action film and ironically based on a fighting game that barely had a plot. The film features superb animation, great fight choreography, and excellent voice acting. The only lackluster component is the plot, but even that part shines brighter than other films from the genre. So, at least we know that an animated video game film is possible.

It might not be too long before we reach the golden age video game films. Warcraft – for all its flaws – is a step in the right direction, clearly being helmed by a director who actually cares. Jones has already talked about plans for the trilogy, and that's enough to get me excited. There is quite a bit a lore behind the Warcraft series and thus much potential so long as clear, concise, and emotional storytelling becomes the primary focus. Hopefully, the studio does not take the criticism or lackluster domestic sales as a detriment because the series has great potential if course-correction begins now. If Jones learns from some of the mistakes – and if the studio trusts him enough not to remove large portions of the next film – then the next film won't just be good – it'll be great.