A post about 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.
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.
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.
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.