I know several people on different sites have already posted their reviews of the Ultramarines movie, including a really nice review here on Dakka by StraightSilver (if you haven't read his review yet you should really do so before reading this one). But since Codex Pictures (the studio responsible for making the Ultramarines movie) was so kind as to let me see a preview of the film I figure I owe them enough to throw my two cents into the mix as well.
This review is going to be squarely aimed at people like myself: longtime Warhammer 40,000 gamers who have dreamed for years about seeing a 40K movie brought to life. If somehow you've found your way to this review and you have no idea who is the Emperor or what's a Space Marine then you're probably better off skipping this review all together or at least visiting Wikipedia and reading up on Warhammer 40,000 first.
Movie Nuts and Bolts
Collectors Case & Graphic Novel Covers
Inside the Collectors Case
The Graphic Novel
Ultramarines the Movie is a computer generated animated movie made by a small studio out of England called Codex Pictures. It has an approximate running time of 70 minutes and features many prominent veteran British character voice actors including Terrence Stamp and John Hurt.
Reportedly, this project was not financed at all by Games Workshop, but rather they licensed the property to Codex Pictures who went and secured financing on their own. The rumor I've heard is that the budget for the film is somewhere in the neighborhood of £9 million.
The version I saw came in the collector's edition metal tin case. It included a copy of the graphic novel and mock-ups of the disc art (as the actual disc to play was a plain promotional copy). The entire package looked very well made and something I would definitely enjoy having on my shelf as a collection piece. I was not able to see any of the bonus features (as a playable version of the 2nd disc was not present).
The story centers around the Imperial shrine world Mithron. Mithron is protected by an entire company (100 marines) of the Imperial Fists but has strangely fallen silent except for a repeating distress call. The only forces within range to answer the distress call in a timely manner is a solitary squad of Ultramarines: Ultima squad. Ultima Squad is made entirely up of fresh Space Marines, presumably only just having finished being promoted from the Scout company. Luckily, the squad is personally led by two Veteran warriors, Captain Severus and Apothecary Pythol.
There is immediate tension between the exuberant recruits lusting for battle and the two wizened veterans preaching temperance. The squad deploys onto Mithron some distance away from their objective because of a mysterious storm that has enveloped the shrine and begins their long trek. Along the way tension continues to develop as it becomes clear that the Imperial Fist garrison has been overrun by something dark and terrible. What will Ultima squad find and will they be able to overcome it to save the precious contents of the shrine? You will, of course, have to watch the movie to find out!
At its heart, the story is a quest. This is really highlighted by a large proportion of the film literally having Ultima squad marching across the bleak desert of Mithron towards the shrine. This long trek allows time for inter-character relationships to be further developed and for a sense of dread to build as the squad approaches their target.
The problem is, any long-time 40K player has read literally dozens of stories where something 'dark and menacing' has occurred and at that kind of deflates any sort of mystery that would normally develop in this kind of story line. Later in the movie there are a couple of nice plot twists, but the straightforward initial plot combined with the long trek did have me wondering a few times why this squad couldn't have had a Rhino transport to get them there a bit quicker!
After the movie was finished I started thinking about that feeling. I had watched the movie along with someone who reportedly liked science fiction but had never heard of Warhammer 40,000. I was eager to hear what they had thought of it. What they said was that although they had been entertained by the overall action and movie they were also confused…who was the Emperor the Space Marines kept talking about and what was Chaos? Funny, I hadn't even noticed that while watching the movie, but I definitely realized that although this narrative was overall capable of entertaining someone who was not familiar with the 40K universe, this absolutely isn't going to be the kind of thing you plop a non-fan down in front of to convert them into the hobby…at least not without a bit of explaining ahead of time.
So if this movie really isn't targeted for a complete newbie and is mainly aimed at the hardcore fan like myself, I have to think that the decision to start the movie off with a 'mystery' that really isn't that mysterious to 90% of 40K players and then wait until (it seemed like) halfway through the movie to get to any action was perhaps not the best possible choice for a first time foray into the 40K universe.
As with any 40K player who has played the game for nearly two decades (I imagine), I have always wanted there to be 40K movies. I personally imagine every game I play as some sort of mini-movie in my own head and the only thing that could top that would be an actual honest-to-gosh proper 40K movie. This belief was only strengthened when various 40K video games came along throughout the years with pretty nifty cut-scenes in them.
Although we all desperately wanted a 40K movie to be a reality, throughout the years all the rumors turned out to either be fake (like that terrible live action footage shot for Games Day years ago) or ended up falling through (like the Bloodquest movie).
As someone whose day job is in the entertainment industry, I always believed that no 40K movie would ever actually be made based on the sheer economics involved to bring such a production to fruition. You see, creating a good movie, especially an animated one, is all about time and resources (computers to render) and those both cost money. Without that money, it doesn't matter how talented the animators are, they just aren't going to be able to render their shots to the best possible quality.
But the problem is, in order to have the money to make really good animation you have to be able to raise it. And in order to raise the money you have to be able to sell financiers on the idea that the project is actually going to make its money back, plus some. That's where the problem with making a 40K movie was in my opinion. You see, really good animation costs a LOT. The Final Fantasy motion picture (which was several years ago) was estimated to have a nearly $130 million budget and just this year Toy Story 3 was estimated to have a $200 million budget. Even those 30 second cut-scenes you see in video games and commercials reportedly cost like several millions to make, and that's just for seconds of footage! Even Games Workshop is only a £200 a year company so its actually understandable that they've never tried to back a 40K movie themselves.
In order for these kinds of giant budgets to make their money back the movies have to end up appealing to a wide audience, which is why Toy Story succeeded and Final Fantasy failed. Being a somewhat hard to follow science fiction movie, Final Fantasy was always going to have a more niche audience than Toy Story. That means it would have had to have been an insanely crazy great movie (which it wasn't) in order to get the audience to make its money back.
The very nature of the 40K universe ('grimdark') means that no matter how well crafted the story and animation are, at the end of the day the audience is going to be limited. That means the budget for any 40K movie also has to remain extremely limited for there to be any hope of recouping its costs. In my mind, this meant that the only way a good looking 40K movie could ever be made would be to completely water down the universe to fit a much more mainstream type of audience. Because if they didn't, and only sold copies to the 40K die-hards, they'd just never make their money back.
But that's just what Codex Pictures is trying to do, and you have to applaud them for the conviction to try to create a movie aimed at a relatively niche audience. Because if we assume that the £9 million budget mark is accurate (which is a bit more than $14 million US) and we also guess that they end up making $30 in profit off of the $39 DVD sticker price they would have to sell over 465,000 units just to make their budget back!
I really have no idea how large the global 40K gaming scene is (even running a global forum dedicated to the hobby), but having to sell a minimum of 465,000 units seems like a really daunting task to me, so again I have to applaud Codex Pictures deciding to make this movie.
So you're probably thinking: That theoretical economic lesson is great and all, but does the movie actually look good?
The problem is, I don't think that question can be answered straight-up. You absolutely have to take extenuating circumstances into account. Again, since animation quality is almost completely based on the amount of time and resources allowed by a budget, you cannot fairly compare the quality of this movie to something like Toy Story or a high-end video game cut-scene anymore then you can compare the special effects of a small independent movie to a mainstream blockbuster like Transformers.
The Ultramarines movie looks like a £9 million movie with a 70 minute duration. There is no animation Santa Claus or Tooth Fairy that can magically harness the willpower of an animation studio and turn that into cash to pay for render time. If you're going into this movie with unrealistic expectations, then you need to chuck that concept in the garbage immediately and go in with an open mind.
However, I know there are some people out there who just don't care what the budget for the movie was. They either want to see an amazing looking film or else they don't want to bother wasting their time. If that's the case with you then I'll just come right out and say it: If you're going to bury your head in the sand about the realities of what it takes to make a movie, then don't even bother watching this movie because you will be disappointed by the quality of the animation.
But, if you like 40K and you're able to grasp that phenomenal animation costs a phenomenal amount of money, then by all means there are plenty of visual treats in the movie to enjoy. You can check out a clip of the movie here.
As with any animation done on a tight-ish budget, choices eventually have to be made to render some shots more fully than others. That means while watching the movie you may notice that certain shots or scenes end up looking downright better than other shots or scenes…that's just the nature of the beast!
I'm not old, I'm experienced!
Overall, the look of the movie is consistent with the 40K background and that's something that can actually be a bit hard to nail down. It was fun to see a lot of the little touches on the tabletop models 'come to life'. For example, getting to see the turbines on Thunderhawk engines spin, a Landspeeder zoom super-fast across the ground or the spotlight on an Apothecary's backpack actually illuminate the darkness all were really fun for me.
There were a couple of design choices that left me scratching my head a bit. They decided to go with body proportions for the Marines that are very different than those we're used to in the game, which you can easily see if you look through their gallery page. I'm sure this decision was an attempt to make the marines look more like they could fit and move in their armor with the minimum amount of anatomical cheating. Even knowing that, for most of the movie I found it a bit weird to see Space Marines with normally proportioned hands and feet after all these years!
I also have to say that the choice to have several Space Marine characters appear very old did not appeal to me. Beyond Space Wolf Long Fangs, Space Marines have rarely (if ever) been shown to be affected by any kind of aging, so I found it very strange to see old looking Space Marines, especially Captain Severus who is arguably the main character of the movie. My guess is that the decision was made to help differentiate the veteran Space Marine characters from the Initiates. I suppose there is only so many ways you can differentiate animated bald, white faces from each other. But whatever the true reason, because the look didn't mesh with my knowledge of Space Marines it did pull me a bit out of the narrative rather than helping to draw me in.
We're all out of bubblegum!
I'm sure what you really want to know is: how is the action? Although there are only really three battle scenes, they're all packed in the 2nd half of the movie, so once they finally get to the action the movie does move nicely from that point on. The Bolters look and sound good firing and there were definitely a couple of moments I mouthed 'that was cool' to myself.
There are some slow-motion bullet-cam shots that were nifty (I think you can see the best one in that youtube clip I linked to above), but I was a bit disappointed not to see any real evidence of the Bolter shells 'exploding' inside their targets. That's always been one of the more exciting elements of Space Marines in my imagination and I really wanted to see it in action.
The other thing that I found oddly strange was that I don't think there is a single instance in the movie where a Space Marine is shown getting shot where the damage isn't fatal. After reading dozens upon dozens of stories where Space Marines are amazingly epic heroes it was almost crazy the rate that these Marines get butchered. I guess you could point to the fact that they had worthy adversaries, but still I'd almost go as far as to say that these Marines were less durable than those portrayed in the tabletop game. They really could have done a better job making the Marines feel super-human by showing rounds shunting off their armor or flesh wounds that they were able to fight through.
The voice acting was definitely the high point of the movie for me. All of the characters sounded really into their parts and their voices were nicely distinct from each other. As an American, sometimes a multitude of voices all with British accents can be hard to tell apart, but I certainly didn't have any such issues here. I especially felt that for the 'Ultramarines' chapter having every character speak with a British accent seemed rather fitting (I think I'm saying British accents = snooty sounding to me!). Although the Imperial Fists also were played by British actors, so I suppose maybe every human in the 41st millennium speaks with a British accent?
There were a few instances where I felt the dialogue was a bit cheesy (more than one joke involving 'the Emperor protects', for example), but mostly it stayed true to character and plot.
Hey, next time perhaps drop us off a bit closer please?
I've had both positive and negative things to say about the movie, so what's my overall rating? I'm giving it 2 out of 4 stars…although a mediocre rating, it has to be said that this is a solid first effort from Codex Pictures. Its really hard to nail an established niche property perfect in a first outing. They did a whole lot right, but there is definitely still room for improvement.
The voice acting is superb, the action was decent and the 2nd half plot twist was nice. However, the first half of the movie is a quest with very little interesting activity. Honestly with a small re-write the Thunderhawk could have dropped the squad off right at the shrine and the story could have played out 90% the same but with a 30-40 minute running time instead of 70. Also, I don't know if it was because of the choice of antagonists, but there really was very little in the film that emphasized the super-human nature of the marines, which is kind of strange for a self-titled movie about said marines.
With all that said, should you consider buying a copy? ABSO-FRICKIN-LUTELY!
At the end of the day, this is a freakin' 40K movie people and it was clearly made for us and not some watered down crap aimed at a wide audience. Sure they didn't hit the thing out of the park, but it still has plenty of butt-kicking moments and I guarantee you'll throw it on in the background when your buddies are over to play a game of 40K.
But most importantly, you have to recognize that Codex Pictures wants to make more of these movies. If this one is a success there will be more and I'm sure they'll get better with each release, as the assets they made for this movie will be useful for designing future movies as well. However, if this movie is a financial failure, then not only will Codex Pictures not be making any more 40K films, but you can safely bet that there aren't a bunch of other studios out there waiting to jump in and make expensive movies aimed at a small niche market. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that if this movie flops this is the very last time a feature-legnth 40K movie is ever made.
So let's be clear here: If you want to see more 40K movies you need to buy this movie, period. In fact, if you can afford it, go buy a couple! Do not pass go, do not collect $200, go immediately to the Ultramarines the movie website and pre-order your copy today. By all means this is not a bad first outing and Codex Pictures deserves the chance to make another movie, so let's make sure they can by voting with our dollars!