There is a technical, yet very important difference, between plot and story. Plot consists of the events of a narrative, a sequence of events that play out in a logical fashion so that there are consequences for choices, actions, and happenings beyond anyone’s control. Story, on the other hand, is a narrative arc consisting of plot points, where the purpose is not to recount events merely for the sake of those events, but to gain an understanding of characters caught up within those events, as well as themes that can be read into both the characters and their circumstances. The Warcraft video games have always been rich in plotted lore, events that serve to establish a fantasy world with a vibrant history in order to transport players away from their relatively mundane lives. It’s debatable, however, whether or not the games succeed in telling good stories, and in like fashion the movie Warcraft places the importance of its lore ahead of telling an interesting story.
Led by the sorcerer Gul’dan, an army of orcs travel through a realm-breaching portal to the foreign dimension of Azeroth in order to abandon their dying homeworld and make a new home for themselves through conquest of this new land. Azeroth is primarily inhabited by the human race, but it is shared with races such as dwarves and elves. The human forces are consistently attacked by the orc invaders; the knight Lothar leads an investigation of who this force is with the help of the wizards Khadgar and Medivh. Meanwhile, among the orcs, the chieftain Durotan begins to suspect that Gul’dan’s leadership is responsible for the destruction of the orc homeworld, and so begins to plot a rebellion against him.
That summary does little justice to the sheer number of characters, locations, and mystical concepts thrust upon the viewer with little to no introduction, and that is precisely why Warcraft, at least as adapted here, doesn’t work as a piece of narrative fiction. Every character is given only enough screentime to establish who they are and what role they are to play as events unfold, but at no point are we ever introduced to a character’s personality: their aspirations, dreams, what makes them tick, why they care, and—more importantly—why the audience should care. What little we do see is gleaned from what the characters exposit, often to provide retroactive justification for triumphs and tragedies that never earned their emotional payoff. It’s a lack of humanity (and, I suppose, orcmanity) that makes Warcraft such an emotionally unengaging experience.
And that’s a shame, because on a purely technical level, the film is gorgeous. Computer generated landscapes lend a weight and believability to a fantastical world and the visually engaging battles that happen within it. For some folks, that alone could be worth the price of admission. The orcs especially are a testament to the power of computer animation to bring life to an entire culture of people. So much of who the orcs are as a people is communicated simply through their movements and their designs, which not only sets them apart from their relatively benign human counterparts, but also cements them as a definitive fictional race in geek popular culture, able to be translated to the medium of film with complete fidelity to the source material.
In fact, the entire production (at least based on my limited understanding of the world of Warcraft) is true to the spirit and lore of the games, and that’s the root of the problem. So much of the film’s time and focus is geared toward staying true to the events and mythos of the Warcraft lore, it never deigns to answer why its audience should care about this world or its inhabitants. Fans of the games will likely find much more to like about this movie than the casual viewer, but that’s exactly what will push everyone else away. There’s a hell of a plot here, but no story.