Sunday, January 16, 2011

Ultramarines (2010)

Grim future. Only war. Etc. and so on. An Imperial shrine world is sending an automated distress call; all further contact with the full company of space marines stationed there to protect a holy relic is lost.

As this is the Warhammer 40K universe whose military organization is utterly atrocious whenever a plot demands it, there's not much of a military force close-by to answer the distress signal weeks later. Only a rookie squad (with an experienced captain and a war-weary apothecary) of Ultramarines is near enough to be of any assistance. After holding some "WE ARE SPACE MARINES! RWOAR!" speeches, of course.

When the group lands on the planet, they soon enough find traces of a massacre committed by chaos forces. The logical course of action here is obviously for the twelve marines to somehow try and reach the location of the distress beacon, in the hope that twelve marines will survive what just slaughtered a hundred of their brethren. For the Emperor, etc. I'm sure it'll end with a perfectly low body count and without anyone encountering a very stupid plan to corrupt the whole Ultramarines chapter.

When I first heard of Ultramarines, the first official Warhammer 40,0000 movie, I wasn't exactly hopeful about it, especially seeing that it's fully computer-animated, a type of animation that only promises catastrophe when put in the hands of a company like Games Workshop that can be pretty sure fans will lap up everything it puts out regardless of quality. A bit of hope developed with the information that Ultramarines would at least be written by Dan Abnett, whose work-for-hire novels in the franchise often are real highpoints of their special little niche.

And indeed, apart from the hideously contrived set-up, and the rather stupid evil plan (which is to say, the whole of the film's plot) Abnett's script is the best part of the movie. Don't take that as high praise, though. Abnett's writing here is quite unexciting and completely unoriginal, front-loaded with every "For the Emperor!" style phrase the Warhammer universe provides, and contains nothing of the writer's trademark ambiguity. At least it's vaguely competent and constructed with professional knowledge of dramatic beats.

The voice acting is pretty alright, too, although I'm not sure if the movie wouldn't have fared better cast with experienced - yet still cheaper - voice actors instead of people like Terence Stamp, John Hurt and Sean Pertwee, whose acting chops just aren't needed for what's in the script (nothing). Though I have to admit it's pretty funny to hear Hurt say the "grim future" wall of text.

The producers could have used the money saved on the stars and put it into the place where it's desperately needed - the animation. As it stands, Ultramarines' animation is a complete embarrassment, falling far behind even the standards set by the CGI cut-scenes of the first Dawn of War videogame (made in 2004, ages ago in this area). I really hope you like to watch jerkily animated characters with putty faces from the uncanny valley jumping (is there grasshopper DNA in Space Marines, by any chance?) and moonwalking through grey and brown low-detail backgrounds, because that's all Ultramarines' animation department is prepared to deliver. On the design side, the whole affair reeks of cheapskating too - everything that isn't a space marine looks as if it were scrapped together in just about five minutes by a trainee. All in all, the animation doesn't look like an actual finished movie should look, but rather like an early draft for one.

Martyn Pick's direction fits this cheap and/or lazy approach perfectly. There's no sense of visual imagination, nothing that doesn't look like mere performance of a contractual obligation on screen. Of course, given how shoddy the animation itself is, I'm not sure what even the best of directors could have made out of it. This is after all a film so cost-conscious that most of its action sequences take place in the dark or during sandstorms so that there's no need for detailed backgrounds in them. Not that there are many detailed backgrounds outside of the action scenes, either. Well, at least there are lots of shots of bullet casings falling in slow-motion.

And why should there be any actual creative effort put into the movie, as long as there's a big "Warhammer 40,000" on the DVD cover? Surely, fans don't deserve quality.


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