Only War

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“In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.”

Warhammer 40K brought the mythology of the wildly successful Warhammer Fantasy world into space, extending the mythos to embrace sci-fi tropes and aliens. The property started as a tabletop miniatures game, and has gone through many iterations through the years. When Fantasy Flight successfully licensed Warhammer 40K for a role playing game line in 2008, they sold out of their first print run in a matter of months. Along the way, the property has forayed into computer games, music, and fiction. Several attempts to animate a film have finally resulted in the video release of “Ultramarines”, the first official feature-length video project from Games Workshop.

The story follows Brother Proteus, newly armored soldier in the Ultramarines, one of the elite Space Marine warriors in service to the Emporer of Mankind. Answering a distress beacon from a brother Space Marine detachment, a squad of Ultramarines finds themselves in battle with the legions of Chaos. They march for Macragge, and they shall know no fear. Cue bolters and chainswords.

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Story (Pass/Fail) – Pass

Dan Abnett can, has, and consistently produces better material than this. However, the point of the story is to highlight the visuals of the story and show off the thematic material of the Warhammer 40K universe. Abnett does this systematically, touching on all the important points within the property without spending any time developing any of them. I would actually rather than have multiple themes and story arcs that are only developed half-way. Much like the source material, Abnett’s story leaves much background and many specifics for the viewer’s imagination to fill in. A stronger story would necessarily have been more focused on one aspect of the universe to the detriment of others portions. The purpose of the movie, after all, is to support sales of the primary gaming products.

Characters (Pass/Fail) – Pass

Once again, the bare minimum of development shows off just how little you can do with a character and still claim to have completed a whole arc. Once again, I blame this on a conscious decision by Abnett rather than a lack of skill. Proteus undergoes a brief trial of character, grapples with an important question, and confronts his own failings. His supporting cast, well, supports him. Don’t expect to groan in pain at the characters or acting, but don’t expect to get too heavily invested in them, either.

Production Value (Pass/Fail) – Fail

I would really love to hand out a passing grade here, as the score and sound design are just so fantastic. Unfortunately, the CGI feels like something from the 90s – distinctly subpar in a post-Pixar environment. The character models all feel like they’re coated in plastic, they don’t always interact with the backgrounds correctly, there feels like a thin layer of digital fog over the whole movie. The colors, while perfectly fitted to the tone of the Warhammer 40K universe, lack any sort of depth of field and detail. If I don’t pay too much attention to the animation, focus on the soundtrack, and just try to appreciate the set pieces, I can almost overlook the poor visual production.

Meaningful Content (Pass/Fail) – Fail

This isn’t just a fail, it’s an aggressive fail. Dan Abnett has done so much good stuff in the 40K universe, that it seems perfectly natural for him to inject some of that pathos, emotion, and resonance into a story just by accident. Abnett takes just the opposite approach, systematically stripping from the characters any chance to treat the presence of deamons, faith in a higher power, and devotion to duty in any meaningful way. It’s no accident; Abnett knows what he’s doing, and the purpose of the movie is solely to provide IP support for the games. I just don’t like the fact that it was done.

Shelf Life (Pass/Fail) – Pass

This really took some consideration for me to give this a passing grade. Am I going to watch it again? At least once, since the guys in my gaming group need to see this movie. After that… I don’t know. The aggressive mediocrity of the visual design and the muted dialog within the audio makes this best suited as a sort of extended music video that plays in the background while your armies are slugging it out on the tabletop. The movie is exceptionally suited to this purpose.

All in all, this is a solid rental for any fan of the genre, but only a suggested purchase for hard core fans of the property. I’ll keep my copy handy, but only because of the powerful soundtrack and atmospheric visuals. The endorsement by Ain’t It Cool News says, “It should be played loud, watched with friends, and followed up by a night of gaming!” This might be the best and only way to truly enjoy this movie. Rated R for graphic violence.

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