“Global Premiere,” my ticket for the Warcraft movie said, but it sure as hell didn’t feel like it. Nick, the big British guy standing next to me, had already seen it two times in London. The two French folks squatting over by Bruce Lee’s star on the Walk of Fame had seen it three times. That’s a lot of views for a film most of the “serious” media were calling crap so vile it rivaled Battlefield Earth in stench, but only now would I be able to get a whiff of it myself.
I’ve lived Warcraft this week. I’ve drank it to the lees, particularly if you count a delightful neon-green concoction called the Warglaive of Azzinoth I guzzled at the Hotel Irvine. I’d come to Los Angeles from South Texas to speak with the developers at Blizzard Entertainment about their upcoming “Legion” expansion for World of Warcraft, but attending the premiere was a circumstantial dessert I couldn’t pass up. A movie premiere at the famous 89-year-old TCL Chinese Theatre? A chance to chat with movie stars on the red carpet? As a journalist, this is bucket list level stuff, shit movie or no. And this is what it was like.
Originally I had no plans to write about any of this. I thus let the Warcraft fan take over. And fan I am, even if I’ve been known to kick Blizzard’s games around when they really need it. For years I whiled away my evening hours and endangered my graduate school studies in the World of Warcraft raiding guild Risen, where we racked up a few world-first and -second boss kills. I spent days recently perfecting a meticulously researched concise history of Warcraft’s world, Azeroth. I’ve got a crazy calico cat, Misha, named after the bear the hero Rexxar tramps around with. And now here I was: nerd Nirvana.
In other circumstances, I might’ve felt bad. Nerd Nirvana, as it turns out, was a cramped little VIP pen on the northern curb of Hollywood Boulevard tucked away behind the big walls with sponsor logos and the bright lights for camera crews. We were technically on the media leg of the red carpet (black in this case, allegedly to downplay any Horde or Alliance favoritism), but we saw most of the major players only from a distance. There stood Felicia Day in her black dress, her shock of red hair barely visible past a massive orcish set piece. There were the executives of Blizzard themselves, looking as comfortable in suits as Michael Cera might look in a boxing ring.
I like to think some of them wished they were with us. People like Travis Fimmel and Felicia Day might grab the attention of the network television stations, but for the people who actually play the Warcraft games, most of the stars were quite literally rubbing shoulders with me. Just to my right, for instance, gloriously bearded and dandied up in a snappy waistcoat, was Ben Schulz—Leeroy Jenkins himself in the flesh. If any non-player on the street knows anything about a particular Warcraft player, it’s this guy. Back in May of 2005 he became one of the first true viral sensations after he killed his entire group of online friends by running recklessly into a room filled with baby dragons. His battlecry—his name—has become the stuff of legend.
Down the sidewalk was Ian Bates, famed for correcting Blizzard on their own lore, clad in the crimson polo that led to him being known the “Red Shirt” guy. Representatives of popular Blizzard-oriented sites like Icy Veins filled in the gaps. There even came a beautiful moment after we realized another celebrity wouldn’t come our way when we embraced our own awesomeness and started hugging and taking selfies with each other.
We were so caught up in this, in fact, that we initially didn’t notice when Paula Patton, who plays the half-orc Garona in the film, became the first star to walk past us. She posed a bit, then looked on bewildered as we took photos with each other instead of her.
“Hey,” I cried out when I noticed her, this uncommon star who chose to bless us with attention. “You’re awesome!” It probably came out wrong. Patton had already moved on before we could even reorient our cameras. Some great journalist I am.
But Jamie Lee Curtis and her son Thomas Guest knew what was up. Curtis, a longtime Warcraft fan, isn’t even in the movie, but she and her son had come dressed up in orcish cosplay and she spoke with everyone along the media line. She seemed to love every moment of it, and we loved her for it. Other people might have their memories of stars posing in fancy dresses or suits, but only we were there when Curtis and son joined up with Schulz to shout “Leeerooy Jeeennnkiiiiiins” at each other. The scene circulated through the internet—along with my unintentional photobombs (I’m the beard on the right). By any account, it was the highlight of the night.
Then it was time. Ushers tossed tickets in our hands and we began the long walk up the carpet, where I entertained visions of roaring ‘20s splendor lying in wait beyond the venerated theater door. An architecture buff, I’d been looking as forward to this as much as the actual movie, if not more. But the people at the door held up their hands after looking at my ticket.
“Nuh uh,” the woman said. “You’re at the theater upstairs.” I opened my mouth to protest. “Up there!” She shot her finger at a nearby concrete staircase. My friends and I suffered the indignity of being turned away from the Chinese Theater and shuffling back down the black carpet in shame. I held on to some hope she really meant a balcony of sorts, but no.
And so it was, after many long steps up and through a decidedly non-Boardwalk Empire-era door, we found ourselves in a humdrum theater that did much to drain me of my starstruck reveries minutes before. Aside from some simple Chinese motifs on the light fixtures, it looked like something you’d find in a modestly populated coastal Texas shrimping burg. Many of us had dressed up for the event, but as I walked over the Coke-stained carpet, I kind of regretted not wearing my usual Hawaiian shirt and sandals. The ushers slapped a pair of 3D glasses in my hand, and that, I feared, was going to be that.
Suddenly, down near the screen, a wild director Duncan Jones appears! He’s out of breath—did they make him take the stairs too?—but I admire his enthusiasm. He talks about how there’s a theater downstairs full of execs and actors, but he wanted to come up here because this is “where the real fans are.” Maybe it’s all an act, but he seemed genuinely interested in hanging around—and who can blame him, after the reviews?—and the gesture nets him some cheers. And finally, the lights go dim and the show begins.
After all the scathing reviews, after the myriad teensy disappointments of the day, I expected shit. But Warcraft wasn’t. Some low moments certainly pepper Jones’s film, such as Ben Schnetzer’s first scenes as the mage Khadgar, where he sounds as though he’s reading the script at a high school rehearsal. (Oddly, he seems to find his footing in the role as the film progresses.) There’s a bit too much lore crammed in, as I always feared, and some things go more or less unexplained. There’s Dominic Cooper, who seems miscast as King Llane Wrynn. The dwarves ski deep through the uncanny valley, which is why it’s a good thing Jones keeps them offstage except for brief clips. In true Blizzard fashion, the orcs have greater emotional depth than the humans. And ugh, don’t even get me started on Thrall. Don’t know who Thrall is? You’re probably gonna have a bad time.
But now that all that’s out of the way, I gotta say: Warcraft gets Warcraft. It embraces the silliness that’s always been paired with the series’ attempts at loftier themes, and generally does so well. There’s the gurgle of the murlocs as a wagon rumbles over a bridge, the sights of a Summoning Stone or harvest golems on far horizons, and the actual animations used for some spells. I mean, holy crap, there’s even a scene in which a key character subtly levels up. I let loose a single loud clap at that and I wasn’t alone. It’s a fan’s movie, and I suspect part of my enjoyment sprang from being in an environment where I’m not having to lean over and explain to my mom who this big green orc is. It sure as hell wasn’t art, but it wasn’t a waste of time either.
Let me explain my enthusiasm another way: I’d needed to pee ever since we were herded into to the little pen on Hollywood Boulevard, but I never left my seat for fear I’d miss something. I can’t even say that about Captain America: Civil War.
A few folks got up as the credits rolled, but most, like me, stuck around. The majority even cheered, and I allowed myself a break in professionalism with a short clap. I wish I could tell you about the after party, and how I chatted up Ben Foster about his experience with the actual games. But the truth is that we were all herded out the doors again and to the bus as though any sign people actually enjoyed this kind of thing was something to be ashamed of.
Maybe there is a little of that. But I plan to watch it again, chiefly to look for all the little easter eggs I missed the first time around. It’s just two hours. I spent whole months slaying the same goblins over and over in World of Warcraft to get a silly new hat for my mage that I never even play anymore. I usually thought I was having a good time.
And this? This was so much more fun than that.
Leif Johnson is a freelance writer who lives on a ranch in the wilds of South Texas. His bylines also appear in IGN, Vice: Motherboard, PC Gamer, Gamespot, TechRadar, and many other publications. You can chat him up on Twitter at @leifjohnson.
MORE BY LEIF JOHNSON: The Unknown Struggles of Gaming in the Sticks