Sunday, 17 July 2016

Three Things Warcraft Could Learn From Lord of the Rings

In 2001, when the first installment of the Lord of the Rings movie franchise, The Fellowship of the Ring (FOTR), came out, I went to see it simply as a sucker of fantasy.  I had not read the books, couldn’t tell Gollum from Gandalf.  Three hours later, I emerged from the theatre a converted member of Middle Earth, and like all the beautiful and hideous denizens there, I wanted to get my hands on the precious (Ring).  More importantly, I was impressed by the magic of Peter Jackson, who had brilliantly brought Tolkien’s complex fantasy series onto the big screen and made me fall in love with it.

Fast forward to 2016, the long awaited movie of Warcraft finally arrives.  As with Lord of the Rings, I have never played the Warcraft game, know nothing about that sprawling universe.  The trailer promises that orcs and humans are to put aside their enmity and unite against a common threat that could destroy both their worlds.  Sounds good to me.  I went into the theater hoping for the thrill of magic, of fantastic characters and landscapes, of epic battles between good and evil.  Warcraft has all these elements, and yet it fails to make me care.  Why?

Both FOTR and Warcraft are based on original materials involving expansive landscapes filled with characters living under the shadow of evil.  Yet their story structures vary, resulting in immersion for the viewers in the former world and indifference towards the latter.

!! SPOILERS ALERT !!
It’s impossible to talk about the many ways the Warcraft movie has failed to engage the audience without delving into the plot, so if you don’t want to know the story details, please stop reading now. 

Problem #1: Where Should We Begin?

The Warcraft movie opens with an orc chieftain Durotan bemoaning to his heavily pregnant wife Draka about their world Draenor, which is dying. (Gosh, what’s with the orcs and names beginning with “D”?).  In a subsequent gathering of the orc clans, the warlock Gul’dan explains how fel magic has allowed him to create a portal into another world, but this gateway feeds on life and they are running out of prisoners to sacrifice to keep the wormhole open.  Gul’dan plans to use the portal to reach and raid the connecting (human) world for a new supply of captives.  That way, the magical gateway will stay intact long enough for the entire orc population to migrate to this new land.  Feeling that they have no other choice to save their community, Durotan and Draka join the first group of warriors to travel through the gateway and reach the human world of Azeroth, thus igniting the conflict between the two species.

I have been told that orcs love fighting regardless of their body condition.  It would have been nice if this important piece of information came from the movie instead of a Warcraft gaming veteran whom I spoke to afterwards.  Without this background info, it was impossible to imagine why the heavily pregnant Draka would want to plunge into the unchartered route of the portal and engage in a war against an unknown species in an alien world.  So when she went into labour while still in the portal’s wormhole, I was disappointed by her decision as well as the writers’ choice for an opening.
The orcs’ dying world of Draenor… still looks pretty green to me.
Simply telling us that Draenor is dying and the only solution is to seize the human world is not enough to make us care.  It just doesn’t.  Unfortunately, this contrived premise is the foundation upon which the story is built.  The result is a saga with shaky credibility that viewers find reluctant to follow.
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Sauron and his Ring
In contrast, FOTR has a brilliant opening.  It shows how Sauron has invested much of his power in the forging of the One Ring that can rule over the other Rings of Power owned by leaders of elves, dwarves and men.  Wearing the One Ring enables Sauron to have dominion over all the other clans in Middle Earth.  After losing his Ring finger in a battle against Isildur of Gondor, Sauron is reduced to a spiritual presence anchored at Mount Doom.  Unable to resist the evil power of the Ring, Isildur keeps it and is later killed by the orcs.  Gollum finds and owns the Ring for five hundred years before he loses it to a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins.

Unlike Warcraft which begins by pitching orcs against humans, FOTR starts with identifying the source of the problem in Middle Earth: the One Ring.  By explaining its creation and its dangerous, alluring power, it tells us what is at stake, namely that the Ring needs to be destroyed or the world is doomed. It makes all the subsequent hardship and sacrifice understandable and sympathetic, allowing viewers to feel for the characters.

It is worth noting that this prologue for FOTR is Peter Jackson’s idea.  The book begins differently with details of Bilbo’s upcoming birthday party and his secret plan to leave his assets including the Ring to his nephew Frodo while he leaves the Shire for an adventure.  Jackson has a good reason for tampering with the original materials.  The novel and the movie are two different mediums, and the audience interact with them in different ways.  Jackson has a lot to pack into the three-hour movie, and he doesn’t waste any time by showing us first and foremost why the story is important.
Gul’dan in front of the portal generated by fel magic
If Warcraft is to take its cue from FOTR, Warcraft should begin by explaining why Draenor is dying.  We learn much later in the movie that the introduction of fel magic into Draenor is the reason for its demise.  Thus the origin, nature and power of fel magic and how Gul’dan became corrupted by it should have been clarified in the beginning.  Knowing that would have made the nonsense that follows make a lot more sense.

Problem #2: Who Is The Hero?

There are numerous characters in the Warcraft movie, and “main” characters alone amount to a dozen.  Among the orcs, we have the chieftain Durotan and his wife, Draka, his friend Orgrim Doomhammer, evil Gul’dan, his associate Blackhand and a half-breed slave girl named Garona.  In the human world of Azeroth live King Llane, his wife Lady Taria, military commander Auduin Lothar, magi Medivh, Khadgar and Alodi.

For a long time, Durotan appears to be the central orc character with Auduin Lothar being his counterpart in Azeroth.  Two-thirds into the movie, Durotan is killed by Gul’dan, and no one in Azeroth including Auduin Lothar has any idea how to stop the orcs and their fel magic from invading their world.

The only person who has a pivotal role in the movie turns out to be the slave girl Garona.  She is a half breed and fluent in human language.  One would assume that she is half orc, half human, but why?  The worlds of the orcs and humans were not connected before the portal, so the presence of human blood in her veins is questionable, and her lineage frustratingly unclear.  Why does this matter?  Because as a captive of the humans following the initial confrontation between orcs and men, she is the all-important translator for the two warring groups, not to mention the recipient of Auduin Lothar’s affection.  She is instrumental in convincing both sides to engage in a peace talk.  By the time she is revealed to be a most important person in the story, the film is half over.  This discovery does not delight but confuse the viewers about whose story the movie is telling.
Auduin Lothar and Garona… quickly falling in love
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Like Warcraft, FOTR also boasts an enormous cast consisting of Frodo and his servant Samwise, Gandalf and the Fellowship which includes Strider/Aragon, Legolas, Merry and Pippin, Grimli and Baromir.  Still, it is clear very early on who the most important person is: Frodo, the Ring bearer, who must take the Ring to Mount Doom, the one place where it can be destroyed.  Having established this premise, we can feel frustration for Gandalf while he is imprisoned at Isengard or dread upon the rise of the Uruk-hai orcs, and yet, we never lose track of the one person that matters: the powerless hobbit with the dreadful task of melting the Ring.
Frodo (left) and Samwell
Using FOTR as an example, Warcraft should have focused on Garona, perhaps telling the story from her point of view.  Her story is actually the only part of Warcraft that is interesting.  As a half-breed, she is the classic outcast who doesn’t belong anywhere in any world.  The dilemma she faces in the end is meant to be heartbreaking.  When fighting on the side of the humans and the orcs are clearly winning, King Llane suggests that she should kill him.  Doing so, he says, will earn her respect among the orcs and give her the ability to bring peace to Draenor and Azeroth in the future.  Had we been following Garona’s story from the beginning, we would have felt the profound sadness of this climactic scene when lacking better options, she digs her dagger into the king and runs towards the orcs, his head in her hand.  Instead, the power of the moment is lost to the chaotic, ill-defined plot.

Problem #3: Where Do We Go From Here?

Of all the things that are so out of focus about Warcraft, having a sequel is the one certainty that the creators are willing to declare.  In the final scenes, we see commander Auduin Lothar hailed as the new king of Azeroth, Garona becoming the reluctant leader of the orcs.  Lying in a carrier floating along a river, Go’el, the son of Durotan is being picked up by a group of humans.  The series of events are laid out like a red carpet for the sequel.  However, with the rest of the movie lacking a clear direction, we are unsure who we are to fear and who to root for.  Should we worry about Garona’s precarious leadership?  Or should the focus be on Durotan’s infant son, the baby that Draka gave birth to right after she landed in Azeroth?  What about Auduin Lothar, who now has this love-hate relationship with Garona?  Is he the hero in this movie?  Many things are happening, but the one thing that matters is tragically absent from these scenes.  Fel magic which started the saga is not mentioned at all, nor is there any information about Gul’dan’s plan. Unable to interpret this open ending, viewers simply withdraw from the story.
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The Black Gate of Mordor
Like Warcraft, not everything is resolved at the end of FOTR.  Frodo and Sam continue their journey towards Mordor, while the others in the Fellowship go to save Merry and Pippin, who are taken by the Uruk-hai.  Even though the characters are heading in different directions, the main agenda remains clear: the Ring must be destroyed.  We can only fear for Frodo for the dangers lying ahead.  With his fellow hobbit Samwell as his only companion, the odds are piling up against him and the next movie cannot come out soon enough.

If Warcraft was to have a similarly engaging ending, it would have to build a much tighter story from the ground up.  Knowing what is at stake and who the protagonist is would have made a big difference in the viewers’ experience of the movie.  At its current state, the Warcraft movie is a noisy mess suffering a delusion of grandeur.  In this golden age of epic fantasy, a simple tweaking of plot structure is all this movie needs for the chance to enjoy a status similar to that of Game of Thrones and perhaps even, the crown jewel of them all, the movie series of Lord of The Rings.

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