22 December, 2010

Ultramarines: The Movie - The Sober Gamer Review

(After reading several reviews of the Ultramarines movie created by Codex Pictures, I found that there are myriad viewpoints on the movie from the perspective of a Warhammer gamer, but none that I could find which reviewed the movie as what it is: a movie. My attempt here is to write something that any theater-goer can read - gamer or no - and get a sense of what they're about to watch.)

Before you know anything else about this movie, you need at least a cursory awareness of a table-top game called Warhammer 40,000. Created approximately three decades ago by Games Workshop, the fictional universe in which the game is played forms the basis of the Ultramarines movie. Since its inception, it's become an internationally-loved game and hobby in which fans build sci fi miniatures, paint them, and then play against each other in a table-top war-game involving dice and measuring tape. The most popular army to play in Warhammer 40,000 is the Ultramarines… and it's they who have inspired this film.

Ultramarines is the story of a small band of futuristic Marines, bound in thick armor and armed with powerful, oversized repeat-rocket launchers called Bolters… not to mention swords on their hips which are loaded with chainsaw blades. They are the elite and first-to-fight in the legions of the Emperor; an ancient and revered ruler who sits at the head of an interplanetary totalitarian imperium. Rule is absolute, paranoia is the underlying principle of law, and offenders are guilty until proven innocent.

This rag-tag detachment of steadfast Ultramarines investigate a distress beacon from a distant planet called Mithron, expecting to find brethren Marines there, holding the line. When they arrive, they find that things are amiss and the presence of demonic forces are seeking to rob the Imperium of sacred artifacts. Their military order is a religious one, where they refer to one another as "Brother" and carry aloft the standard of the Emperor, whom they revere as a Christ-like deity.

The first few minutes of Ultramarines set my mind at edge about what sort of direction this movie was going to take. I was afraid that the Dudley-Do-Right Ultramarine ethos would over-emphasize the Arnold Schwarzeneggerish action-hero element. Instead, the tone is quite dark from the outset. It's hard to pry the machismo out of the Ultramarine mythos, but this movie, its tone, its visual character and music achieve a deft balancing act of conveying the power and muscle of the genetically enhanced super soldiers while, at the same time, skirting the cliches which could have crippled this tale from the outset. Failing to achieve that balance would have ruined this picture for all except the most devoted fans.

I was pleased that Ultramarines is a movie first and a Warhammer wank-fest second. It's for fans, but there's care taken to allow the uninitiated access to the story. Though this isn't exactly Fried Green Tomatoes, there is generous attention to character development and plot advancement. The characters have names, personalities, strengths and weaknesses. It underlines my earlier point about the balancing act; a real movie is more than just pauses between action scenes. Again, Ultramarines will not win (nor does it deserve) any Academy awards, but there's care and artistry in its story that makes it quite watchable.

Due to the detailed, very specific source material, no review of Ultramarines is complete without mention of its faithfulness to the Warhammer canon. All fans of Games Workshop's lore will be happy to know Ultramarines is meticulously, uncompromisingly, even lovingly faithful to canon and crafts a story in which its universe is treated as scripture. From the precise formation of Marine squads, the religious relationship to their weapons and armor, the role that each Marine plays within the squad, the rules of the larger universe in which various Marine chapters interact with one another down to the blessing of ammunition itself… those who love the Adeptus Astartes are going to get a very special, geeky thrill from Ultramarines's devotion to it. This is no doubt due to Games Workshop's unflinching restrictions on licensing their IP and how they aggressively retain creative control. Hollywood could learn from Ultramarine's example and apply this level of respect for source material in movies based on popular comic books, video games, etc.

Though hardcore fans will be squeaking with glee over Ultramarine's "future of war" story, an uninitiated non-fan will probably blanch somewhat at the thick, unapologetic Judeo-Christian imagery that echoes the darkest chapters in real religious history. It's a pervasive influence on the Warhammer mythos that parrots an era of prejudice and persecution, despite how odious that reference can be. It's a strange context in which to frame "the good guys" of the tale, but devoted Warhammer fans have long since accepted it as part of the cosmology. To put it bluntly: Don't expect Ultramarines to make a fan out of those who have a distaste for what the Crusades meant to religious history. "The Emperor Protects" rings with the kind of fanaticism that modern thinkers find ugly… even as fiction.

Ultramarines is rendered completely in CGI, which is not only a cost-efficient way to bring fantasy and sci-fi movies to the screen, but makes a lot of sense for a movie like this one: The environments, effects, sets, etc. for Ultramarines would have been prohibitively expensive and difficult to do properly. It's interesting, however, how the movie is so visually inconsistent. There are magnificent scenes and effects which are so lifelike that you can almost feel the metal under your fingers or smell the smoke in your nostrils. Certain panoramas or sets are simply breath-taking and truly bring the gritty fantasy world to dim, dismal life (in particular, I was just stunned by Chaplain Carnak's armor, especially his ornate helmet). Sometimes, it's little more than a third-rate Shrek. At its worst? The motion and expressions are lifeless, wooden and utterly impossible to believe. In fact, some of the animation was so poor that I'm at a loss to explain how it came to be included in the final print. There's one scene in particular which I won't describe (so as to avoid spoilers), but it could have been a low-rent re-enactment of Buzz Lightyear having a fist-fight with another Buzz Lightyear. It was more disappointing than funny.

One of the glowing gems of this film - an aspect that too often goes overlooked - is its sound design. At every turn, the audio was utterly perfect, and the mood of the movie was greatly bolstered by it. During scenes when great battles were taking place, the crack of Bolter shells firing and armor clanking against melee weapons was flawlessly executed. In quieter scenes, footfalls and the whisper of voices were treated with deft expertise with clever attention to reverb and occlusion. It helps, of course, to have such a gifted cast lending their voices. Terrance Stamp and John Hurt, in particular, have distinct and characterful voices that resist all temptation to over-act or reduce the material by adding humorous subtext. In fact, many of the ideas and dialogue that Ultramarines serves up would probably fall flat if not for the capable cast.

A movie with plot and characters lives and dies by its story, and Ultramarines tells a tale which isn't likely to challenge or inspire many people… but it's a solid tale all the same. It's about heroism and brotherhood and honor and all that good stuff that warriors are supposed to stand for. Though there is brutal violence throughout, the violence is not the point of the tale. As the small band of warriors find their way across Mithron and discover its secrets, its tested by stress from within and attacks from without. It sounds truly epic, but this movie resolves its deepest human issues very predictably; nobody ever really believes that the honor of the Ultramarines will ever be sullied or that true marines could ever betray one another. Though an earnest attempt is made to put the question in the audience's head, there's no tension there. We know they'll never fail.

This is not to say there are no twists or curve-balls in the Ultramarines tale, but it's not a mind-bender. Most of your time will be spent watching plot developments you already knew were coming play out. And that's okay; few movies on the market these days will hit you with anything unexpected. Instead, let yourself luxuriate in the gratuitous machismo and violence for which the stage has been set. Getting the most out of Ultramarines is about the guilty pleasure of watching good claiming an exaggerated triumph over evil and thumping the living sh** out of it in the process. It's clearly inspired by (but doesn't steal from) great tales of war between the holy and the profane. You'll see echoes of 300 or Lord of the Rings at certain times. Ultramarines can take you there, and does. That, above all else, is what this movie is good for.

You have to respect a movie that knows what it is. It doesn't pretend to be anything but a fleshed-out exposition of a sci fi mythos that is normally brought to life on the table-top with painted miniatures and dice. There's no love story. There's no 11th hour morality tale. No Picard-esque sermons. It's just a very capably-crafted tale about sci-fi combat. There's an honesty about Ultramarines that hooked me not as a fan of the game, but as a fan of sci fi film. This is probably why I'm willing to forget (though not ignore) Ultramarines' many shortcomings and moments of abject "cheapness" to the production. The fact it isn't a movie for everyone really doesn't bear mentioning, but Ultramarines is no mere cash-in on a popular IP. There are limits to where you can go with the subject matter, but it's as honest as a movie as this sort can get.


  1. Awesome, concise review!

    Seems to have struck a cord with fans for sure.

  2. You forgot to start your summary with "All in all..."

    Every top reviewer starts that way ;)

  3. Thanks guys :)

    BTW I've invited BoK to reprint this if they'd like to. No idea if they will, but if you see it show up on that blog don't call a lawyer. :)

  4. Nice review.

    I've not watched the movie yet. From the hesitation in the voices of everyone who has said they liked or loved it I can tell that some of the bigger mistakes are pretty glaring.

    I guess the gauntlet is down for those who feel they can do better...


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