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Warcraft: Revenge of the Nerds

By Dan Cava

June 11, 2016

They stay up too late. They have nothing on their brains. At least that’s what people say, and they’re only half right.

I’ve known my share of dedicated video gamers and, while I can’t say the popular stereotypes are without all merit, gamers’ sophistication within their field should not be taken lightly. I’m not a gamer, but I respect the energy and detail that goes into being one of the faithful. Like all legit nerds (see their less ridiculed counterparts in sports, politics, fitness, parenting, or my area of nerd-dom, film), their dedication to the simulated world spills into every related habit: the clothes they wear, the books they read, the conventions they attend, and the movies they see. They probably can’t tell you the weather outside, but they know their stuff.

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The applause that accompanied the logo for Blizzard, the video game company behind the movie’s enormously successful video game predecessor, was the first sign that things were going right for Warcraft. It was also the first of many clues on how the movie wants you to watch it: as an extravaganzic celebration of a franchise whose multiplayer edition World of Warcraft has attracted over 100 million adherents.

We shouldn’t think for one minute (certainly none of the minutes after the Blizzard logo) that Warcraft is meant to create new converts to the WoW cult. If so, there are a thousand things that the filmmakers would have done to create compromises between the kingdom of the nerds and the mainstream mortals. They would have cast household names and reworked the characters’ traits to suit the things that conventional audiences already like about the actors (think Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher). They would have set the movie’s people-versus-monsters story within just two worlds– a human world and an orc world– rather than the subtitle-inducing array of realms with which we are presented. They would have called things by their commonplace titles, not their WoW-jargon substitutes wherein people’s names are random selections from a JRR Tolkien genealogy, and nouns are halfway points between two otherwise recognizable words: it’s not a magician, it’s not a sage, it’s a “mage!”

But seen from the other end, Warcraft is an awe-inspiring work of meticulous fan-pleasing and an act of rigorous selflessness on the part of director Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code) and his collaborators. Rather than a Christopher Nolan-esque repurposing of the material as an established genre (e.g., turning Batman into a crime saga), Warcraft goes full video game. The movies revels in the 13 side of its PG-13 aims, boasting a fully realized world of gamer particularities that I found fascinating in its completeness, its otherness, and its joyful silliness.

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Everything here is at the service of the source material. The action scenes are as numerous as they might be in a game, and the smashes are earth-shattering concussions of CGI devastation. The magic spells are elaborate, their results visually kaleidoscopic. At times, the camera flies over the action, reminiscent the top-down perspective I vaguely remember from my college roommates’ glowing computer screens. The story is resplendent with details but simple at its core, like most video games I’ve played.

In the spirit of things, the cast’s performances are earnest but not serious, with the gleeful over-focus of actors at a children’s theater. Most of the actors sink their sometimes prosthetically-protruding teeth into the fun; Ben Foster is particularly magnificent (MAGE-nificent, I guess) as a brooding warlock of sorts. The unfortunate outlier is Paula Patton, but only because her attempts to make her orc/human half-breed empathetic seem lifted from another less overtly bonkers movie. If anything, the more-is-more approach might have been better served with a longer running time. A few jarring edits made Warcraft feels like a three-hour movie fast-forwarded to fit into two.

I had a blast giving myself over to a world designed so lovingly for someone else, so I can only imagine what the nerds were feeling. Actually, I don’t have to imagine. Here are some actual snippets of conversation I overhead after the movie. Spellings are phonetic, as I refuse to research any of this.

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“The Merlock was awesome.” – a grizzled, Kevin Smith clone standing outside the theater.

“I thought I heard a Hogger, but I couldn’t be sure. I loved that. I want to see Solanis.” – a sixteen-year-old girl, fresh out of drama class.

“The movie was ON POINT. I’m telling you, it was ON POINT.” – a limp-haired, black T-shirted, wide leg jeaned boy yelling into his phone.

“YouTube is going to go crazy with all the easter eggs in the movie.” – the Kevin Smith guy again.

This is one area I would quibble with the nerds, at least semantically. The movie doesn’t have easter eggs; the movie is the easter egg, hiding in plain sight right smack in the middle the nerds’ front lawn. That is its triumph.

There’s bound to be a proliferation of bad reviews for this movie because, like another recent and critically loathed big-budget adaptation, it doesn’t conform to the norms of a self-contained movie. Whatever. They’re not wrong, they’re just watching the wrong movie. Haters gonna hate, but the gamers gonna game. Warcraft nerds, shake it off. This movie and this movie review are for you.

Star Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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