[40K] The ‘Ultramarines’ movie and unrealised potential

For the blog was without form, and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep…

An uncharacteristic bout of nine-to-five work means less in the way of worthwhile gaming activity and pompously bearded pontificatings about same.  Therefore, allow me to share with you something from the back burner – an entry concerning Ultramarines has been on the cards since March, but I couldn’t be bothered to actually watch it until fairly recently.  In the following post I unashamedly saddle up my cultural studies high horse and claim that Game Settings Are Art With Symbolic And Narrative Value – and I won’t apologise for that, because a) I’m a godawful snob about these things and b) I think it’s a valid claim that co-exists just fine with people who just want to play with their toy soldiers – but I feel you deserve some sort of warning, and this is it.

I should probably be ranting about how Chaos Space Marines are supposed to be cleverer than that, or about how the crozius arcanum is a melee weapon, or some other petty inaccuracy, but the fact that Ultramarines takes liberties with its source material – which it does – is immaterial next to that of its being arse-gravy – which it is.  It abounds with very obviously cut corners in design, uncanny-valley characters who communicate in macho action film clichés and insta-40K catechisms, and fine British actors who, collectively, were phoning it in from somewhere beyond the Martian moons.

That its limitations could be excused by a fine story was always a possibility: I am a charitable man raised on British televisual standards, and thus willing to accept this outcome. Alas, the limit of my charity is to describe the writing as run-of-the-mill and rather unworthy of Dan Abnett.  Were I being uncharitable, I could say that bugger all happens in it, that what does happen is entirely predictable, and that I feel about as engaged by the characters as I would by a random Boltgun Billy in someone’s miniature army.

That it features Space Marines shooting at Spiky Space Marines is undeniable, but it doesn’t have the courtesy to do so in a particularly interesting or inspiring way.  You could get your hot Marine action from Dawn of War and then you’d have the pleasure of beating someone at Dawn of War to boot.

The satisfaction of beating Von at Dawn of War looks a bit like this.
Dawn of War: every time I get the urge to buy 40K models, I play this until it stops.

It is shabby, it is shallow, and if you gave Codex Pictures money for it, you have effectively announced to the world that you will buy any old shit, at any ludicrously-above-orthodox price, if it has Space Marines in it.  You may argue that buying it means they will be motivated to do better next time.  It does not.  You have already told them that they do not have to do better; they got what they wanted when you bought the damn thing and you have shown them where your standards are set.

You may conceivably enjoy shit films.  This is fine.  I enjoy the odd shit film too – I have to or I’d never get to go to the cinema, hur hur film snob alert – but I know they’re shit and I don’t go around telling people that things are otherwise.  I will never tell you that Evil Dead 3 is a masterpiece or that old Doctor Who is anything other than intermittently-good-mostly-awful budget sci-fi telly.  Indeed, I will often tell you that Doctor Who fails to live up to the potential of its premise, and that’s what I want to say about Ultramarines too.

See, it was a no-brainer that the film was going to be about the Ultramarines – Space Marines are the cash cow, after all, they’re the Designated Heroes of the setting, and the Ultramarines are the Space Marine-iest Space Marines of all.  The thing is, pure played-straight Space Marines are DULL.  They aren’t people; they have sacrificed their humanity to become nothing more than killing machines that pray between acts of killing, and their relationship to their peers aspires to absolute and unquestioning loyalty.  That’s an interesting concept but it’s not something you can really relate to unless you compromise it in some way; give them something other than faith and violence to live for, give them some other way to feel about one another, and by so doing stop them being proper Space Marines.

Presumably, that’s why Dan Abnett wrote them as ordinary and rather bad soldiers who bicker and show off and don’t trust each other or exhibit much fraternal fidelity at all but still shout “AND WE SHALL KNOW NO FEAR!” every few minutes.  It is also why the Space Wolves are the only inherently interesting Space Marines when you get down to the level of individuals, because their whole drunken-braggadacio-space-Viking thing allows for breadth of character without compromising what they’re about.  Give a Space Viking a peer group and say he trusts one, dislikes but respects one, has a problem with the authority of another, and you haven’t compromised his Space Viking nature in any way.

via spraygraphic.com
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Space Viking in possession of a good battleaxe must be in want of precisely sod-all else.

Do that with a warrior monk who’s supposed to be absolutely devoted to his Chapter and peers and you compromise his warrior-monkitude, implying a crisis of faith, and that’s how Renegades and Traitors get started – he’s not a proper Space Marine and he’s going to stop being a proper Space Marine altogether if he doesn’t pull himself together quick sharp.  That struggle is still a fairly interesting idea but it’s very solitary – you need the others to keep their warrior-monkeying together in order to show why the loner’s difference is important, so you have one character and a thousand cut-outs.  This is why the Blood and Dark Angels are interesting – they’re aberrations that are struggling to be as un-aberrant as possible, they’re feared, loathed and mistrusted and they either succeed in overcoming that to a certain point or they die trying, fates represented by their special characters.

40K’s a pastiche composed from the colorful detritus of culture, slapped together haphazardly by a bunch of overeducated nerds in order to sell the cool models they sculpted, but what it’s never been before now is blatant or cheap. The nice part about said nerds being overeducated is that they knew history and literature and culture, and synthesized it into something evocative and fun, with the same curves and angles of real history, even while its specifics were completely unbelievable. Now that they’ve all left, been given the boot, or been all but stripped of their influence over the universe, all we’re left with is a marketing department that’s trying to sell to a demographic and the creative lackeys who’ve been tasked with getting us all to pretend that this is an “evolution” of the universe rather than a degradation.
Lexington

The 40K universe, or at least the bit of it in which Space Marines reside, is not entirely about characters as rounded individuals who bicker and squabble and have lives, what I would call ‘proper characters’ if I put my Film Narratology hat on; it’s about factions and archetypes and ideologies and symbols, grand conflicts and sweeping gestures of pride and defiant hate, spite at harsh oblivion.  The characters within it exist in embrace of some of those things and resistance to others – they are slipping knots in a web of concepts, defined by their relationship to a vast symbolic universe.  They have to be so, in order to give the people playing in that universe room to find something that they’re interested in about it and create characters that exemplify that interest.

Characters in a setting like this represent a perspective on this, that and the other.  A character like Dante isn’t particularly interesting as a person, he’s just an archetypal great leader and doer of mighty deeds; what’s interesting about him is the idea of compromised honour that he embodies and the idea of creeping inner corruption from something which is undoubtedly sacred but also dangerous that he resists.  The protagonists of the 40K RPGs – Inquisitors, Rogue Traders, the Deathwatch – are all characters to whom conflicts like this are available, who operate in spaces where they can be characters without being burdened by their reputations.  Whether a given play-group chooses to play up to that or just have fun representing the archetypes and purging the unclean is another matter, and frankly I don’t care whether my RPG group or anyone else’s are exploiting the full potential of the setting or not.  It doesn’t matter to anyone who’s not involved in the game.

I do care whether its full potential is being explored in a film made with the approval and blessing of the setting’s creators, though.  That approval or blessing indicates whether or not the people who own and produce the 40K universe care if it’s represented with flair, intelligence, creativity, humour, integrity or any of the qualities that make a film good and a setting interesting.  There is so much more in the 40K universe than is represented in this banal shite, so much more that could be done than a bunch of boring characters tromping around a dustbowl deliberately not doing anything that would be expensive to animate.  There is so much that they could have done right, even on a limited budget; the casting was a step in the right direction, as was hiring Mr. Abnett for the screenplay, and yet their efforts are stodgy and uninspired and nobody thought to say “now lads, this isn’t good enough”.  That nobody from GW did so reveals either that they don’t care, or that they think we don’t care, as long as it’s got the bloody Ultramarines in it and it’s got Dan Abnett’s name on the front; and that is just as bad, or worse.

10 thoughts on “[40K] The ‘Ultramarines’ movie and unrealised potential

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  1. My brain escapped out my arse whilst reading that!

    I agree with what you are saying, after reading several of the Horus Heresy books. They opened up with a fight/battle scene with the same heroe space marines doing what they do best, with each colour bringing in a new characteristic.

    It is a real shame the original boys sold out and it has become a marketing machine. I most likely will watch any film that comes out to sate my interest from a young age. So the marketing machine will work for 90minutes or so on me, because I let it. Any longer spans of concentration and I really turn off now.

    Will the new Space Marine computer game be popular? Will the SM film be popular? who knows big nose.

    1. Hee – this is why I don’t write more film reviews, you see. They have this effect on a lot of people…

      I will watch anything, but there isn’t much out there that I necessarily enjoy – and I’m very wary about the films I choose to pay for, because my opinions and reactions don’t mean jack if I’ve already voted with my wallet and basically said “I will give you money for shit” – and not even sold-as-seen, either! Thank Eris for Orange Wednesdays – I may have watched the dreck but I won’t have contributed as much to supporting it and that’s a compromise I can live with.

  2. Dunno Von. I think that you are too harsh on the boys on blue.

    Ultramarines have the potential to be interesting, I mean, Roman Space Marines trying to out-do each other for honours (kinda like the SW sagas, but with more bling and medals) and with schisms for who controls the chapter, who’s the biggest hero, who follows the Codex Astarters and what deviations from it are ok and what aren’t. Example: Sicarius.

    Oh, and the relations with the new Tyrannic War Veterans.

    Problem is, GW really doesn’t give a fuck and just want to push them as the boring, generic chapter. By writing fluff expanding on that (with all it’s defects, the Ultramarine omnibus does) and by not-limiting the Roman bling to expensive metal (oh wait, is Finecast now) models, they could give a little more punch to them.

    Is a damn shame, because I don’t believe that Space Marine Chapters have to have a “evil, dark secret” and/or being at odds with the rest of the Imperium to be interesting.

    And of course that SM games will be popular. SM print money. GW knows that fairly well.

    1. I suppose you have a point about there being more-than-just-generic-Space-Marine characteristics to the Ultramarines; mea culpa. Still reflects rather badly on Abnett and whoever was quality assuring him, though: his Ultramarines aren’t the Justice League, they’re… well, they’re like beefy, shouting Guardsmen. In point of fact, they behave a little bit like the Marines we saw portrayed in Rogue Trader – which should make me happier than it does, but it’s just so easy to knock out those stock military characterisations and not explore or justify or develop them at all that I can’t hold any respect for it even if it is gratuitously old-school.

      1. *Haven’t watched the film in question, so feel free to disregard this post*

        The difficulty in portraying Space Marines in general, and generic Marines in particular, is that drama is rarely achieved by watching people do something flawlessly. Characters are not interesting because of the thing they do: they’re interesting because of the ways they’re rubbish at the things they do. Interesting protagonists succeed not because of their strengths, but despite their weaknesses. Space Marines have no particular weaknesses (except for that they’re inherently unlikeable due to their chronic lack of personality), so it’s difficult to care. In a film about Space Marines versus Evil Spiky Space Marines, you need to have dramatic tension as to what the difference is and why anyone should care. Or, given the grimdark setting of 40K, perhaps a gradual insertion of pathos as the differences are seen to be largely arbitrary (both sides dedicate themselves to slaughtering people in service to something they worship without questioning whether it’s right or necessary…). If the film is just “Ultramarines wander about, have a fight”, then that’s not a plot, and those aren’t characters.

        1. What you have there, with ‘Ultramarines wander about, have a fight, retrieve some Fists, have another fight, go home’ is a plot – it’s a series of events occurring in sequence. What’s missing is any exploration of the causal relationships that turn plots into stories.

          Witness:
          “The king died, the queen died, the prince died” – plot.
          “The king died, so the grieving queen killed herself, and the prince got himself killed in foolish heroics trying to prove himself to the nation” – story.

          Ultramarines has a whiff of story, the merest hint – but not enough.

          Dead right about protagonists, though. Crap Space Marines are the only inherently interesting ones and I’m still not convinced that they make particularly worthwhile characters since, let’s face it, they’re still perfectly equipped to overcome most of the physical challenges a hostile universe places in their way. Emotional and psychological challenges are more interesting but is the genre in which ‘Ultramarines’ sits suited to presenting and exploring those challenges? Doubtful.

  3. The changes you are talking about can be seen if you pick up a copy of the originial Rigue Trader rules. The imagery was much more down to Earth but still gritty. As you mentinoed this meant we could relate to them.

    Now we are left with SM that it is difficult to relae to in the fluff or pictures.

    . . .What’s my point . . .?

    1. That we relate to them because they’re boss ‘ard, because they’re always in the starter set, and because half the range is composed of variants on their basic theme?

  4. *Warning: Uninformed opinion, haven’t seen the movie*

    From what I’ve heard, the problems of the movie come from different angles:

    Dan Abnett.
    *He’s a novel writer, not a movie writer. Or they didn’t asked for his opinion on the screenplay.
    *He doesn’t like Space Marines and it shows. Honestly, he’s the wrong pick for this. I would have prefered Graham McNeil(why they didn’t ask to the guy who wrote the fucking ULTRAMARINES OMNIBUS?), Ben Counter, William King or James Swallow for the task.

    The 3d studio.
    Dawn of War I looks better.

    Games Workshop.
    As usual, they didn’t gave a fuck.

    1. On Abnett: I still think of him as a comic book writer, to be honest, and as more effective in some dimensions than others (I can’t remember the plot of a single Gaunt’s Ghosts or Ravenor story, but I remember the characters fondly…). The intelligence that he doesn’t like Space Marines is interesting. All of this shows in the finished film.

      On Codex Pictures: their sins are the most forgiveable given that they’re quite a small outfit, but given that they managed to wrangle some pretty impressive acting talent (and then under-direct it into irrelevance) with that money, I can’t quite bring myself to forgive them entirely. I’m not au fait enough with the differences in design limitations and requirements between game and film to make any sort of informed judgment about whether it *could* have looked better than Dawn of War I, but I concur that it doesn’t.

      On GW: see above, really.

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