Few fictional universes are as ripe for visual storytelling as that of Warhammer 40,000.
Inspired by a tabletop wargame, over its 26-year existence the setting has evolved into a baroque medieval future of faith and heresy, where everything comes bigger and more ornate as a standard, and which humanity is trapped between the equally murderous extremes of zealous devotion and the forces of Chaos.
Despite the relatively high barrier to entry, it has legions of fans outside the Fanta-drenched, hormonal confines of the Games Workshop store – Black Library fiction, and the videogames like the rather excellent Dawn Of War series have created a broader fanbase of older, lapsed enthusiasts, military SF nuts, and agnostic fans of anything involving aliens being blown to pieces.
As an experience, Ultramarines: A Warhammer 40,000 Movie has far more in common with the wargame than anything else.
The animation is so poor that everything feels disquietingly tiny, the men inch high and the spaceships Red Dwarf-style models pulled across the screen on string. Faces are so lazily rendered they look like action figures left on a radiator, so it’s no small mercy that for the most part the expressionless helmets are jammed on – the fact they’re all drawn from about three different animation models making them look especially like they’ve just been poured out of a newly opened blister pack.
Also, there’s no girls around – in this surfeit of growly British vocal talent – Sean Bean (Dog Soldiers, Event Horizon), Donald Sumpter (Game Of Thrones) John Hurt (Alien, Nineteen Eighty-Four) and Terrence Stamp (Superman) being the big guns – there isn’t a single female role. The world’s fairly testosterone-driven, granted, but there’s still scope for female servitors on the ship, priestesses or novices on the shrine world, or even more feminine or gender neutral demons.
Finally, completing this over-stretched metaphor – at a RRP of £19.99 on DVD and £24.99 on Blu-ray for 70 minutes of what wouldn’t pass muster as gameplay graphics, let alone cut scenes, it’s dangerously close to the price/cost ratio that’s the bedrock of Games Workshop’s business strategy.
Dan Abnett, writer of the bestselling Gaunts Ghosts, Eisenhorn and Ravenor series, as well as some of the landmark offerings in the Horus Heresy range is always tremendous value for money – he has the ‘For the Emperor!’ patter down to a fine art, but what would be pages upon pages of battlefield colour are depicted as somewhat dowdy pre-vis test animation that pales before even the first season of Star Wars: The Clone Wars.
What would be a capably generic storyline – a squad of rookie Space Marines respond to a distress signal on an Imperial Fist shrine world and discover all is not as it seems – and a fairly ripping future Boy’s Own in the hands of Abnett’s prose is thrown together as unimpressively as possible – the twist undermined by the lethargic voice acting and stubbornly unimpressive fight scenes delivered with static direction of Nintendo 64 beat-’em-up.
Characters dance jerkily around endless identical corridors and over endless identical rocks, all smothered in either darkness or fog with the futile intent of obscuring the horrific lack of detail.
For a setting that relies so heavily on such a vast and awe-inspiring sense of scale, there’s precious little of it on offer.
Warhammer fans put up with mediocrity on a fairly regular basis through books, audios, comics, games and beyond, but as with many fandoms leaden prose and recycled ideas are a cross they bare to see the world they’ve invested so much in come alive.
Ultramarines: A Warhammer 40,000 Movie doesn’t make the grim darkness of far future war come alive so much as it makes it lurch around like a crude marionette in a seafront puppet show.