It's not easy being a gamer. Here we are, participating in one of the most lucrative entertainment genres known to man, yet our beloved hobby is still largely ignored - or even ridiculed - by the majority of the Old Media, particularly television and Hollywood. Simply, good game movies/shows are incredibly scarce despite the fact that many gaming franchises come with a millions strong fanbase that stretches across national boundaries. Case in point: Warhammer 40K.
If you don't know, Warhammer 40K is a science fiction universe set in the far distant future, specifically, the 41st Millennium. Unlike the sunshine and lollipops sci-fi futures of Star Trek and Star Wars, Warhammer 40K's future is unremittingly grim, as attested by this standard preamble to every 40K book (and there are many of those, including some New Zork Times bestsellers...praise the Emperor!):
"It is the 41st Millennium. For more than a hundred centuries the Emperor of Mankind has sat immobile on the Golden Throne of Earth. He is the master of mankind by the will of the gods and master of a million worlds by the might of his inexhaustible armies. He is a rotting carcass writhing invisibly with power from the Dark Age of Technology. He is the Carrion Lord of the vast Imperium of Man for whom a thousand souls are sacrificed every day so that he may never truly die. Yet even in his deathless state, the Emperor continues his eternal vigilance. Mighty battlefleets cross the daemon-infested miasma of the Warp, the only route between distant stars, their way lit by the Astronomican, the psychic manifestation of the Emperor's will. Vast armies give battle in His name on uncounted worlds. Greatest amongst his soldiers are the Adeptus Astartes, the Space Marines, bio-engineered super-warriors. Their comrades in arms are legion: the Imperial Guard and countless planetary defence forces, the ever-vigilant Inquisition and the tech-priests of the Adeptus Mechanicus to name only a few. But for all their multitudes, they are barely enough to hold off the ever-present threat to humanity from aliens, heretics, mutants -- and far, far worse. To be a man in such times is to be one amongst untold billions. It is to live in the cruelest and most bloody regime imaginable. These are the tales of those times. Forget the power of technology and science, for so much has been forgotten, never to be relearned. Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark future there is only war. There is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods."
If you are like me, you probably experienced a chill up your spine when reading that. This is precisely why fans of 40K have been clamoring for years for a big budget film treatment.
Unfortunately, I cannot now tell you that Ultramarines: A Warhammer 40K Movie is that treatment. However, I can tell you that this is a solid first step for the Emperor....
Ultramarines deals with - yes - a squad of Ultramarines who are sent to investigate a distress beacon on the planet of Mithron, home to an important imperial shrine. Without giving too much away, this hardy bunch of the Emperor's finest soon discover that the sinister forces of Chaos are at work. From there, the movie proceeds according to standard Space Marine codex operating procedures, i.e., burn the heretic! Ha! This straightforward plot is largely executed by the numbers, something that, unfortunately, leaves little room for surprises or plot twists. As a result, the plot is ultimately little more than a pretext for the Space Marines to do their stuff.
However, having said that, Ultramarines deserves high praise for faithfully - an important term when it comes to 40K - delivering a movie that truly does capture the essence of 40K. This is no small feat seeing how so many other studios could have - nay, would have - over-simplified and butchered the complex lore of this setting (and believe me, 40K, being a 20+ year old franchise, has lore deeper and more complex than Tolkien's Middle Earth!). It is all in here: the Cult of the Emperor, the daemonic forces of Chaos, bolters, chainswords, seals of purity, and all that good stuff that makes 40K...well, 40K.
Helping along the authenticity of this movie is the excellent CGI animation. Now, I confess to being skeptical about this movie prior to seeing it precisely because of its CGI nature. Some CGI flicks are very cheaply produced, and I was concerned that this would be one of those after-schoolish presentations. Fortunately, that is not the case. The CGI is quite impressive at times and is loaded with all sorts of wonderful detail, even down to the texture of the Space Marine armor. In addition to the often lavish detail, the art direction of the CGI, one that combines a detailed realism with a bit of a graphic novel shaded cell technique, gave this movie a very distinctive look, one that is well suited to the nature of 40K's oft epic artwork. Even the combat scenes were deftly handled, and not without a bit of gore (parents might want to keep this in mind). Not everything is perfect, though, as I found the facial animations to be emotionally flat and devoid of life, along with the Space Marines having a walking-gliding gait that seemed thoroughly rigid and unrealistic at times.
The voice acting was quite good, too. I guess this is no surprise considering the talented cast of voice actors which included Terence Stamp, John Hurt, and Sean Pertwee. Likewise, the music was first rate and filled with Gregorian-styled chants that are so suited to the warrior monks who are Space Marines.
All things considered, I consider Ultramarines to be a success. Sure, 40K purists might find a few things to grumble about (such as the chapter strike cruiser being seemingly staffed by a single servitor - in the novels, these things have thousands of souls upon them), but despite a handful of flaws, the movie delivers the goods and is most definitely a 40K film that remains faithful to the setting we all love. In fact, I think it is quite telling that even though the plot really doesn't require a repeated viewing due to its simplicity, I am going to go back and watch it a second time just to immerse myself in this wonderfully realized setting once again (so good to be finally free of softball Star Wars and Star Trek). And, yes, I can definitely see myself picking up a copy for my library (Amazon has it for $12!).
I think the best thing about this movie, though, is how it serves as an excellent warp gate...er, entry point to introduce new people to this franchise. Ultramarines seems to me to have been primarily conceived as a first big toe into a larger audience. While there is a lot of 40K lore in this film, it also strikes me as being carefully tailored so as to not overwhelm those who might be unfamiliar with this European import franchise. Again, in this way it is a success. I hope to see Ultramarines being gifted to kids who have been lulled to sleep by years of Jim Kirk and Anakin Skywalker (40K parents: get your kids to watch this NOW!!!!), as well as it making an appearance on Adult Swim for adult fans of anime (time to take a break from the equally tired influx of Asian "samurais in space" anime). This idea is further reinforced by some of the excellent bonus content on this DVD, including an animated graphic novel that serves as a prequel to the events in this movie (quite good - tyrannids! - and explains why only a squad of Space Marines were sent to investigate the beacon), and a short featurette detailing the backstory for Space Marines in general. I found both to provide a good foundation for those new to this setting.
In short: if you are a fan of Warhammer 40K, do yourself a favor and rent/buy this movie. It is not perfect, but it is a good first step. And remember: "Blessed is the mind too small for doubt."
Score: 3/5 (add an extra star if you are a 40K fanatic)
Addendum Primus: If you enjoyed this movie and would like to experience more 40K, I highly recommend you try one of the many books, the tabletop miniatures game, or one of the many computer games, included the Dawn of War franchise, and Space Marine.
Addendum Secundus: I truly hope the producers follow through on their promise that this is just the first of a bunch of 40K animated films. But in addition to this series, do not forget about another 40K movie in early production, The Lord Inquisitor: