Warcraft’s Orcs, The Lord of the Rings, and Non-Human Storytelling

By  · Published on June 8th, 2016

Fantasy is never about the humans.

Remarkable as The Lord of the Rings was in establishing the fantasy-epic as a mainstream, popular genre, the series’s success wasn’t just its cast, effects, or sweeping New Zealand vistas. It dealt with the different fantasy races (dwarves, orcs, elves, and hobbits) as entirely different entities than humans, tangentially related societies whose cultures we glimpse from time to time. Their orcs, a mainstay species in fantasy stories, are relegated to the demonic hordes of war – their history and culture explained away with a single line by Saruman:

“Do you know how the Orcs first came into being? They were elves once, taken by the dark powers, tortured and mutilated. A ruined and terrible form of life.”

Warcraft, a film with more than half its focus on the warring Horde of orc clans, blazes a new trail in establishing another fantasy race’s culture. While it briefly shows elves and dwarves seated at the human’s council, their worlds are never explored. The orcs, on the other hand, dominate the film. Some of this is due to how bland and uninteresting humanity’s story is compared to that of Durotan (Toby Kebbell) and the politicking of the orcs, but it’s also that Warcraft adores its otherworldly warriors.

From the point-blank shots centered on a motion-captured face to the close-ups of an orc couple’s gentle teasing, the style of the film belies a staggering confidence in its effects. The orcs, as well as their camps, look amazing. Realism comes second to technicolor high fantasy. Striking the balance between a dusty band of berserkers and the cartoonish visual style of the video games, the orcs have enough detail – as opposed to the all-black, monstrous Lord of the Rings variety – to look diverse. Some are obviously evil, with spines growing from their backs, others honorable.

Then we see them fight. Sound and visual design combine to create some of the most satisfactory combat by non-humans since we saw a cave troll smash up the Fellowship. The orcs are big and brutish. Their hammers sweep away human soldiers and crush helmets like aluminum cans, striking fear into the hearts of the shocked human cast. And, at this point (mostly thanks to the aforementioned uninteresting humans), we’re mostly rooting for the orcs. The work by Kebbell, Anna Galvin (who plays his mate, Drakka), and Daniel Wu (the sneering warlock Gul’dan) bring us into the world as much as the (constantly changing) environments.

Their camp, with its iconic red Horde banners that many will recognize from the video game and crude log huts, is simple and cluttered. We get the sense that their people are used to establishing a new base often, nomads by necessity. However, more akin to Star Trek than Lord of the Rings, the film places us in an alien race’s culture, not just their war camp. Their conflict resolution system is similar to the to-the-death koon-ut-kal-if-fee of the Vulcans (remember when Spock and Kirk fought with those big bladed poles? Or when Jim Carrey and Matthew Broderick did the same thing in The Cable Guy?) or the trial by combat against the Gorn. Honor comes first among orcs, something underpinning the film’s most impactful sequences.

While the humans are motivated by the desire to drive out invaders, the orcs are allegedly being led to their salvation by a magician. Anyone that knows the genre connects the dots that maybe, just maybe, a group of axe-wielding warriors might not trust forces they don’t understand. Inter-clan politics, the division between tradition and progress, and the corruption and destruction of a people (complete with an orcish Moses) make the green and brown warriors infinitely more watchable than the interchangeable bearded white guys who gawk around and plan vague military strategies.

Like in Lord of the Rings, Warcraft’s successes come not from its medieval human kingdoms, but from its fantastic creatures. The hobbits ran the show, not Aragorn’s pretty face. In fact, most of the humans in that series that we meet outside of the Fellowship are antagonistic until saved by the party. One can only speculate on how Warcraft would be different (and much, much more expensive) if it had allowed the orcs full reign over the narrative and left the humans as a subplot. What we have instead is half a marvel of technology, design, and motion-capture acting and half blah humanity. Yet these orcs, like Avatar’s Na’vi, represent a milestone in alien storytelling.

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Jacob Oller writes everywhere (Vanity Fair, The Guardian, Playboy, FSR, Paste, etc.) about everything that matters (film, TV, video games, memes, life).