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Ultramarines movie
24th Dec, 2010

I had the pleasure of watching the Ultramarines movie thanks to a friend. To cut to the chase I did enjoy it, but overall it did not hang together as a Space Marine movie. I had to use a bit of mental gymnastics to deal with the ‘logic bomb’ at the heart of it (that may be a bit strong, I’ve only just watched it, and I may mellow in the days to come πŸ˜› ).

Please do not read this if you have not seen the movie as what follows may spoil your enjoyment. I have tried to stay away from the actual story and concentrate on the underlying premises. This is very nerdy, and only really applies to fans who take 40K far too seriously to be healthy. Most will not care one jot about what bugged me. If you can forgive the taint of nerd rage, please read on;

Note: The use of the term ‘logic bomb’ in regard to media (rather than code) is not widely used, so here is a quick definition by me: A logic bomb is when you realise a major premise of a story is logically flawed according to the setting’s own internal reality, and everything based on the premise is blown out of the water as a result. Once the flaw is noticed it cascades into everything else. The realisation jolts you out of your suspension of disbelief. It has to be serious enough to put a big hole in the fantasy to be classed as a ‘bomb’. It has to do irrecoverable damage. You cannot ignore, gloss over, a logic bomb once known. It really messes with your enjoyment of the fantasy, and if you want to save the fantasy it forces you to salvage what is left with drastic fan re-writes and ‘what if’ hypotheticals.

Right from the start the dialogue of the Marines did not sound right to my ear. The voice acting was great, some real talent with distinctive voices, but it was what they were saying that was the problem. From the opening sparring session things seemed off, Captain stating to Proteus that Marines never yield, followed up by Proteus immediately yielding, and from then on all kinds of red flags were popping up as the logic bomb was prepped. Then it hit home: the premise that this was their first battle as full battle brother Ultramarines I can accept, but the idea this was their first ever battle?

Logic bomb

BANG! The logic bomb exploded. At first I thought I had gotten it wrong, but by the time the fist encounter turned up all doubt was removed. In all the background I have read about the Marine’s recruitment it clearly states that they have served as scouts. The one exception is Space Wolves, but this movie is about Ultramarines the most codex of all the chapters. Even before they were scouts they were heroes on their homeworlds. They had to prove themselves worthy of being recruited in the first place. Each Marine is a capable fighter long before they ever become a full battle brother (the ones who wear the power armour). A full battle brother is a veteran, a champion, and a hero of a hundred campaigns and has proven themselves in combat and worthy to wear power armour (says so in the codex). This revelation did put the beginning into context, and all the red flags, but opened a can of worms thereafter.

This leads to a cascade of thoughts like ‘if this is their first battle: what happened to the scout phase?’, ‘Why entrust sacred, rare, and expensive battle armour to raw recruits who have not seen action?’, ‘Is the armour really that special if they equip raw recruits with it?’ and all the other question this all brings up. Things were rapidly unraveling. Time to hit pause.

Scouts

In the main background this is explained by the use of ‘scout armour’ by new Marines, which is a much cheaper alternative to power armour. For the movie to work, as written, there would be no scout phase, or scouts would have to be given power armour. Either way this would mean that power armour would have to be readily available, probably in mass production, and expendable. This would have a knock on effect and the whole Adeptus Mechanicus vibe, the difficulties with technology, and the whole process of armour manufacture as detailed in the rest of the background. Power armour would not be a ‘relic’.

What if

This realisation put the kibosh on my viewing pleasure, and fired up my brain. I had to resort to a quick metal rewrite and adjust my exceptions to continue viewing it as a Space Marine movie and retain some thread of Marineness. Which brings me to my first bit of mental gymnastics and a hypothetical: if the Marines where scouts, instead of full battle-brothers, the movie would have made a lot more sense. As a movie about a scout unit’s first mission lead by a veteran sergeant it would have hung together a lot better. Once I came up with that, the movie wasn’t that bad, but at the same time I wasn’t viewing it as a true ‘Space Marine’ movie.

Side note: I wonder if it was written for scouts and changed later as marketing decision to get the ‘Space Marine’ tag? (Reading the forums it seems many like it and do not seem to have noticed this logic bomb).

This would alleviate little oddities like Proteus being said to be ‘nervous’ when he first sees ‘something’. Saying a Marine is nervous makes no sense as they are battle hardened and they know no fear (as they keep stating throughout the movie). If they have no fear they are unlikely to feel nerves. In the context of the rest of the background this would have to be taken as an insult, a bit of banter, but this idea is blown out of the water when the rest of the unit fails to act on his hunch. Messing about and having a laugh is one thing, ignoring your battle brother’s well honed instincts is another. It seems it was meant, that Proteus should be ignored because his information cannot be taken seriously, backed-up by the auspex’s readings not showing anything. It came across that his trusted battle brothers think it far more likely that he is having a ‘moment’, then the possibility of a real threat being present (yet they know all about chaos?).

My expectation when Proteus said he saw ‘something’, a fast moving enemy he couldn’t hit with two attempts, was for the Marines to take it very seriously (and quickly figure that such a fast moving enemy may try and flank them) and ‘circle the wagons’ in response. At least long enough to figure out their next action. I expected them to be alert and in the zone. I was not expecting them to ignore it and put it down to ‘nerves’, and talk about ‘weaklings’. It made them sound sloppy, distrustful (and spec ops units are all about trust), and plain stupid. Even armed with my new concept, were they are all recast as scouts, this seemed a bit of a stretch.

Which brings me back to what the marines are saying again – the above is even more jarring is that they keep saying ‘we shall know no fear’. Which is signposting the fact they do not have fear, and this gels with what we know about Space Marines from the rest of the background. However actually stating this, ‘we shall know no fear’, seems a bit redundant and overly negative. Why say it in the first place if you can’t feel it? It sounds more like positive reinforcement: said to reduce fear and improve focus. Something said to gee up in preparation to doing something unfamiliar. Marines do not need that. I would have thought something more rousing to do with glory, duty, and battle would be more appropriate – you know the stuff ‘We shall crush all who oppose us!’ ‘For the Emperor!’ ‘For the glory of the Imperium!’ not ‘we shall know no fear’ or ‘we shall not cry like babies’ you get the idea? It just sounds wrong.

Getting back to the first encounter and judging by what the Marines say during the encounter it seems they do not really believe in the whole ‘no fear thing’ if they think one of their number really is ‘nervous’. It seems to be a contradiction, but I suppose if the Marines do feel fear and this line is really more about positive reinforcement, then it makes sense – but it does not make sense for a Marine as we know them.

All these thoughts pile up and it’s not hard to literally pick it all apart for hours, but I think what I have said highlights the core problem: they are not Marines. Not even close.

This is not a total loss, as if you do what I did and dump what you know about Marine recruitment and training, and accept this really is his first ever battle, then it all kinda makes sense. As I said earlier I recast them all in my mind as scouts, in a ‘what if’ musing, and the captain as a veteran sergeant. From then on it was a bit more fun, but then the chaos marines turned up and they needed recasting, and…

Getting away from the Marines for a moment as that rabbit hole is a bit all consuming…

Chaos

Chaos is said to be insidious, yet chaos seems to be blatant in taking over people. This is not specific to this movie, as chaos always seems to be overpowering in the way it corrupts (Horus springs to mind). It would be nice for the thoughts, that one would imagine could lead to corruption by chaos, to be addressed. For the emotional responses the characters have to a situation to be challenged with reason, to give perspective to how chaos invades the heart. I imagine that chaos corrupts through unchecked emotional reactions running away with themselves, for ‘gut feelings’ and prejudice being taken as fact and acted upon. I think there was a missed opportunity with the exchange between Verenor and Proteus when discussing Chaos in regard to the Imperial Fist Chaplin. It seems to me they are right to suspect the reasons for the two Imperial Fist’s survival, but they have limited information, and should also consider the possibility that they were allowed to live for other reasons – after all the ‘warp is cunning and insidious’ and will try to turn brother on their brother, especially if the targets of Chaos are strong. Chaos would do this though manipulation of events via its minions to cast doubt, and promote misunderstanding – a textbook case would be Verenor’s conviction of the Imperial Fists as suspicious, rather than the events as suspicious. His suspicion seems to border on being driven by fear (yet we know marines do not have that…).

I did like the demon, and the way it changed, and I think that counts as a highlight of the movie.

The Look

Moving away from the story and looking at other aspects of the production things do not seem half bad. The company, Codex Pictures, made the Bionicle trilogy and this production is of a similar level (but with better voice acting). The 3D models of the Space Marines look pretty good (which can be tricky, I know as I’ve tried it!). Each character’s armour has it’s own individuality, with some nice touches. There are the usual problems of amour overlap in certain positions (but that’s more a problem of the Space Marine design) but nothing too serious, and can easily be ignored. I liked the Thunderhawk, and the Battle Barge was OK.

That’s not to say there were not problems that a limited budget cannot excuse: the knee armour stuck out far too much when kneeing. This is not how the armour is depicted on the miniatures or in the artwork. It would not have been difficult to correct, it’s a rigging anomaly. Same for the feet. The marines did not move naturally, and quite unusually at times, but getting the little things right often takes a long time – and money.

The sets were a bit underwhelming when in focus and not obscured by mist, but I do like the swirling mist desolate look, so it wasn’t too bad. Lighting had a very artificial quality to it, but that comes down to computing power and I do not think Codex Pictures can stretch to the type of render farms needed. The Bolter flashes were odd, the flamer jet was nice. The Bolters did sound great.

Combat Gear

The Marine’s hit rate and the amount of ammo they fired raised alarm bells. None had a spare mag, and all fired far more shots that 20-30 rounds which, apparently, is how much a mag holds. This is not too bad as many movies lack reloading during a gunfight. It seems to be an accepted norm, but it’s still is annoying. The bolt did seem a little over effective when it did hit, none seemed to have made a saving throw πŸ˜› . Despite being lethal they did not explode πŸ™ .Β  A few popping heads would have been nice. The Marines did seem to be woefully inaccurate shooting down charging chaos marines at close range, they couldn’t hit the back side of a barn apart from the opening slow-mo shot.

Getting Perspective, and Fun

It may be a bit strong to say that this movie contains a logic bomb as it can be taken in isolation, and then it works fine, but in the wider sense of the vast 40K landscape? As part of the 40K background, the scout error is a mistake that is going to take a lot of other things down with it. If left to stand. I suppose it could be explained that all the other Ultramarines on the battle barge were killed and only the raw recruits were available to take on this mission. If this was the case then there could have been plenty of power armour to be taken from the fallen, followed up with quick promotion…. Though this does not sound plausible: it breaks everything we know about the recruitment process and ‘proving themselves worthy to wear the armour’. Perhaps we have to go a little more extreme and isolate it in yet another parallel dimension like Blood Bowl and Warhammer Fantasy – it’s all Warhammer, but not all Warhammer dimensions are compatible with each other.

To summerise: The story kinda worked (in isolation), the marine models were pretty, the vehicles OK, sets a bit bland, marine movement was awkward, voice acting was pretty good, and sound was alright. All in all the movie was fun, but not fun as a Space Marine movie: if that makes sense? More fun in a generic sense.

I have read a lot of reviews on forums and some love what they have seen, others less so. I think it is one of those things you are just going to have to see for yourself.

2 Responses

Hearing feedback is very important to me in developing my ideas. Much of my designs are inspired, and crafted, by chatting to fans on forums before snowballing into a full concept you'll find here. I would like to thank all those who have contributed critiques and participated in discussions over the years, and I would especially like to thank all those who commented on this specific topic. If you would like join in you are most welcome!

  1. Christian says:

    When some sort of fiction is being written, be it a novel or movie or whatever, there’s invented human actions by the author. The human psyche is so complex so you don’t have to have be veteran psychologist to write the fiction for two reasons. One, because there could be so many reasons for a person to do something so anything but the most extreme acts of a person seem plausible for the average human/reader and two, we the viewers and readers aren’t human experts (as in impossibly good human expert) so our level of human knowledge are most of the times not high enough to determine when a simple small indifferent sentence is wrong or out of place.

    This makes it possible for almost anybody to write fiction which will be accepted by the average reader.

    I write this because it’s another thing for some of us when it comes to the Warhammer 40k universe. We know maybe not the exact background but almost exact background which makes us kind of experts. And so the difference is now that the author has to make so much right on so many areas, because the average viewer is a very good expert in this specific universe as opposed to a non specific universe.

    Does this make it impossible for any author to write an exciting story and not make a single background mistake in the Warhammer 40k universe? I’ll say no, but it does demand a lot more from the author. It demands that every single action, scene, conversation and expression is not a ten second thought from the author which is then written down. It demands that even though a good idea pops up it has to be rethought and rethought again before it’s approved.

    And so I think that if you’re not up to it, if it’s too hard to write a whole story because you have to stop yourself constantly to question yourself if the action or scene is approved, so your writing doesn’t flow from your hands, then you’re not fit to write a story happening in that sudden universe, in this case Warhammer 40k.

    If the author can’t write a story without these logic bombs as you call them, then I don’t think you should write at all. And it suddenly becomes clear when the author doesn’t mind half tonnes Space Marines walking over rotten wood bridges or let Chaos Space Marines act like Orks.

    Thank you for your review Philip. It’s nice to read a well thought review from someone who knows the Warhammer 40k universe very well and who’s realistic when it comes to how to accept the movie.

  2. Ollie says:

    Did you read the short comic booklet that came with the movie, Philip?

    It dismantles this ‘logic bomb’ and explains why Dan Abnett wrote the story the way he did.

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