Watching ‘Warcraft’ With A Cosplaying Jamie Lee Curtis May Be The Only Way To Enjoy ‘Warcraft’

We went deep inside the Warcraft fandom at the LA premiere and came out... changed.

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I was standing across from Jamie Lee Curtis, her face green and her clothes garish, when a skull-ensconced spike on a troll’s pauldron jabbed me hard in the eye. Jamie Lee Curtis grabbed the spike, pushed it away, and we had a garbled, friendly moment in which she schooled the troll and I on the hazards of spikes before continuing on her merry way.

Considering I was at the world premiere of Warcraft, the monumentally expansive fantasy blockbuster based on the unspeakably successful game franchise, I guess this wasn’t all that weird.

Inside The Warcraft Fandom

The first Warcraft game came out in 1994. Since then, even non-gamers would have encountered the game — it involves you manoeuvring orcs or humans around a foggy battlefield, frantically harvesting lumber to build defences before being flanked and inevitably killed, usually by your frustratingly adept cousin.

Soon, Warcraft II and III came out becoming instant bestsellers, but online role-playing game World of Warcraft was the one to rule them all. WOW has been arguably the biggest game in the world for 12 years now. I’ve been playing it for 10 years, which means I know it better than I know most people in my life. Which is very, very depressing.

Warcraft is notorious for its fandom. The game has had a South Park episode dedicated to it, has millions of subscribers, and is about to release its sixth expansion, Legion. There have been rumblings of a Warcraft movie for a long time, but things became more concrete over the past couple of years. Duncan Jones (David Bowie’s son, who directed Moon and Source Code) was attached to direct, roles were cast, and production began.

After all this anticipation, I flew out to LA with Kris Straub (co-host on our gaming podcast 28 Plays Later) to see the premiere last week. We and the rest of the gaming press were poured into a bus, then deposited outside TCL Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. The smell of urine on the streets was almost (definitely not entirely) masked by the palpable funk of excitement.

I’d never been to a proper Hollywood premiere, but what I learned was this: the scale is kind of insane. Hollywood is very, very skeevy. It combines old world charm with the sort of grotty tourist traps you typically find on the bad side of Melbourne’s Swanston Street after immediately leaving Flinders Street Station. But, on any given night of nights, they clean up and close off the street outside the legendary theatre, turning the road into an enormous, fenced-off red carpet. Press are poured into special pens which line the street, spotlights fill the area with a cinematic luminescence, and at the tail end of the runway sits a huge elevated stage for interviews. On this night, the stage was peppered with swords, shields, and surrounded by men in full plated mail — I assume little of this is present at the Oscars.

What became immediately apparent was that the other side of the runway was lined with all the “real” (read: mainstream) journalists. And because a large marquee was draped down the middle, it just so happened that only their half was lit by the spotlights. The cabal of bloggers and game journalists I was hemmed in with were literally in the dark, huddled like a clatch of grimy gnolls, desperate for scraps. Through the gaps in the banners, we could see the cast, laughing and flashing their teeth for the assembled press (whose teeth were equally perfect). I don’t know if the sight of us was too demoralising, but many of the cast simply reached the stage, glanced at us, and doubled back down the same side. But eventually… she arrived.

Jamie Lee Curtis is a gaming nerd. Her whole family is, in fact. She, her husband Christopher Guest, and their kids frequently rock up at conventions in costume. And there she was, on the red carpet, in a striking warlock-like dress and green makeup. Dressed as the troll version of Cruella de Vil, she swiftly crossed the border and began holding court. She began yanking cosplayers from the crowd and getting photographs with them. She and her son yelled “LEEEEEEROOOOOOOY JEEEEENKINS” with the man who invented the meme.

After my Spike Incident, we had a brief chat, she waved, everyone screamed, and I tried to suppress images of her in True Lies (and utterly failed to do so). It was the highlight of the night.

No, The Movie Is Not Good

The movie itself was odd. Whereas Super Mario Brothers with the late Bob Hoskins veered far from the source material — or rather, had to, given the lack of story present in the Mario Brothers games — Warcraft seemed wedged halfway between two very uncomfortable places: the needs of hardcore fans, and the needs of moviegoers with no prior knowledge of Warcraft’s biblically complex lore.

Warcraft has over a decade of detailed world building already on the table, and it’s clear the filmmakers wanted to adhere to this. But here’s the rub… writing for a video game doesn’t necessarily translate into a compelling story. And because the running time was almost three hours long, what you’re left with is a rather exhausting film about very shallow characters making sizzlingly idiotic decisions. Like a bad soap opera, characters never question even the most ridiculous assertions, they jump to insane conclusions, and regularly avoid reasonable human responses to even the simplest problems. Every conflict in Warcraft could have easily been avoided if each and every character, with the exception of the lead Orcs, wasn’t as dumb as a box of hair. Which they are.

The film takes place in Azeroth, a world filled with stunningly dull humans, mostly white, mostly male. It’s like a creamy, indistinct grab-bag of teenage fantasy clichés and the lead, Vikings (Travis Fimmel), is perhaps the most dull shell of a hero in recent movie history. His thick accent combined with his bull-headed fatuousness made him seem less like Aragorn and more like Tommy Wiseau. In fact, he’s a pretty upsetting fusion of the two. Then there’s Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), the young wizard who comes across like Jimmy Olsen in robes. Khadgar is clearly meant to be boyish in a “he’ll be a hero one day but for now he’s just a wide-eyed kid” way, but he’s performed (or directed, or written, or all three) so ham-fistedly that he’s less “the chosen one” and more “the one who won’t stop yapping”. The rest of the human cast fares just as badly.

But then, there are the orcs. Durotan, Grelka, Blackhand, and Ogrim are the best thing about Warcraft. Their society is complex, brutal and rife with conflict. Their struggles are strangely relatable, their interactions genuinely compelling, and their performances riveting. I genuinely wish the film had focused solely on them. The original Warcraft game’s tag line was “orcs versus humans”. I think it’s safe to say which race won in this movie.

After the film finished, I staggered from the cinema, baffled by the adulatory praise from the fans surrounding us. (I’m often confused, but no longer surprised by, the seeming lack of critical faculties many fans have regarding anything that falls under the umbrella of their fandom). But hey, each to their own. For me: after 10 years of playing WOW, this movie had broken the spell.

What’s Next For The Franchise?

The next day we were taken to Blizzard HQ, the university-style campus where the game developers maintain World of Warcraft, Overwatch, Starcraft, Diablo and all of their other games. We were fed, watered, and shown the new expansion, Legion. There’s a new playable class (the Demon Hunter), several new areas to explore, and what appears to be a killer plot… We spent the morning talking with the developers, looking at concept art and previewing the new game content, and by the end of the day I’d forgotten about the artistic injustices of the previous night.

Blizzard is a sprawling empire with a true love for what they do — their new hit Overwatch is the most fun I’ve had gaming in years, combining cartoony twitch shooting with the plot of The Incredibles.

The movie was them dipping their toes in, trying something new. And if it leads to better, braver places, then I’ll forgive the scene in which a CGI golem ponderously staggers towards a wizard whose shitty acting is only one rung up from Philosopher’s Stone-era Radcliffe.

But here’s the real question: did Warcraft actually need to happen? I would argue it didn’t. I’ve yet to see a single movie based on a video game that really needed to be made. Instead, they often feel like attempts to remind the world outside the gaming sphere that, hey, this is a legitimate artistic medium! We can make movies, too! Our stories are just as good as yours!

This is the kind of gently myopic pleading that the gaming world doesn’t need right now. Blockbuster games like The Witcher 3 and Uncharted 4 are hitting the kind of hormonal cinematic adventure hotspots in our brains that most movies ceased to do long ago. Similarly, indie titles are stretching storytelling into truly terrifying places. Gaming is already taken seriously. This attempt to go Hollywood feels like the kind of vestigial endeavour that would have felt more appropriate back in the ’90s.

Fans have a superb, penultimate iteration of Warcraft, and it’s a video game. This? This feels like a creative cul-de-sac. I don’t think a company as savvy as Blizzard will come back this way anytime soon.

Feature image via Jamie Lee Curtis/Twitter.

Paul Verhoeven is a Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop creation. He hosts Save Point, writes for TheVine, and is a presenter on Triple J, and tweets from @PaulVerhoeven.