Saturday, November 21, 2009

ULTRAMARINES: A Warhammer 40,000 Movie- What We Know So Far

This news item is what I like to refer to as a "Fanboy Nuke."

About a month ago it was announced that Games Workshop, creator of game franchise Warhammer 40,000, is producing a movie called ULTRAMARINES. While this was exciting, the lack of information about the film made most fans respond with cautious enthusiasm rather than outright adoration.

Well that's just changed.

It turns out ULTRAMARINES: A Warhammer 40,000 Movie is being shot from a screenplay written by Dan Abnett. If you're not a Warhammer fan this won't strike you as big news- but trust me, it is. If you heard a series of popping noises on Thursday evening, it was the sound of fanboy heads exploding across the world Scanners-style in response to this announcement. (See video below.)

Warhammer 40,000 is a tabletop wargame that has recently branched out into other media, including the Dawn of War PC games. The premise is that in a dark future, mankind has forged a brutal dictatorial galactic empire constantly at war with malevolent alien species that range from inter-dimensional demons to Space Orks. (Yes, like in Lord of the Rings, except these have spaceships and guns.) It's a bleak world of big battles and big heroes, where every day at the office looks like the opening scenes of The Fellowship of the Ring crossed with a Soviet human wave attack. The "Ultramarines" of the film are genetically and technologically-enhanced ultimate warriors who have traded their humanity in exchange for power armor, a fanatical religious creed, and the power to own pretty much anyone or anything on cue. Picture the lovechild that would result if a Knight Templar boinked Optimus Prime and you've basically got them nailed. (Or see the opening video from Dawn of War below.)

As for Dan Abnett, he's is an award-winning comics writer and bestselling author known for writing quite good Warhammer 40k tie-in novels like the Eisenhorn Trilogy and Gaunt's Ghosts series. (I'll be reviewing his first original novel, Triumff sometime soon.) Not only is he known for writing vivd battle scenes, but he's also a one-man argument for why tie-in fiction shouldn't be dismissed as inherently terrible. In short, he's undeniably the most prolific and successful author in the large stable of writers fostered by Games Workshop's publications wing, The Black Library. Though Abnett is a first-time screenwriter, his knowledge of the franchise and good track record outweighs any worry about him producing a quality script. Besides, the man has written comics for twenty years, and as we saw in the recent Watchmen adaptation, comic panels are really just storyboards with speech bubbles.

Essentially, in hiring Dan "my-characters-kick-so-much-ass-they-don't-have-energy-left-to-take-names-afterward" Abnett, the good folks at Codex Pictures (who made the Bionicle trilogy) have shown that they're dedicated to doing a 40k film that's "respectful," rather than the quick cash-in so many fans feared. I'm sure there will also be a faction that immediately crystalizes against the film, since like any writer, there's a segment of the fanbase that really doesn't like him. Nonetheless, from my perspective this is really, really good news, and has already spurred book-length internet debates on what the film will look like, what the rating will be, whether the Ultramarines were the right choice for the protagonists, etc, etc.

But I'm going to avoid that. Instead, I'm going to take a clear, facts-based look at what we know, and what we don't know, just so we're all on one page.

First of all, there's the announcement of Abnett writing the screenplay, as mentioned above. What's almost more important than that, however, is the fact that Codex decided that this would be the first substantive information to release about the project. This is in marked contrast to an earlier adaptation, Bloodquest, that released test footage of Ork Dreadnaughts and Imperial tanks as part of its launch announcement before the project became mired in production hell. Instead of concept art or a teaser trailer, Codex has decided to emphasize story, which is a good omen. It also can't hurt that their frontman is a widely-trusted storyteller from the franchise, and is visibly enthusiastic about the project. Seriously, putting Abnett in front of a camera was a friggin' masterful PR move. His on-camera confidence about the endeavor will probably quiet a lot of fears.

Next is the announcement of the director, Martyn Pick, which was overshadowed by everyone's preoccupation with the film's celebrity screenwriter. (Now that's a sentence you don't read often.) Pick has mostly directed short films, such as the London 2012 film for the Beijing Olympics, and has described his style as "painterly," which would seem overwhelmingly pretentious if it wasn't so literally true. For a good sense of his work, which has some 40k elements, see the animated intro to the film The Age of Stupid. There's no real sense of if he has any talent with actors here, but you've gotta admit the man has a good eye and can work CGI.

Script and director aside, there was also an announcement on the Ultramarines and Codex website that didn't get a lot of press: according to the film website, Ultramarines is a "feature-length movie on DVD... a 70-minute sci-fi thriller that will use CGI and state-of-the-art animation production techniques [my emphasis]." Yes, I hear you groaning- direct to DVD is rarely a mark of quality-but hold up a minute.

I'm going to convince you that this is actually a very, very good thing.

I've always been a big naysayer when it came to a 40k movie for several reasons. The foremost of these was the cost it would take to get a film produced to the standards fans would expect. The action in 40k is by definition epic, involving alien monsters, planetary assaults, and massive battles, meaning that a theatrical film of the property could easily require a budget approaching $100 million, plus $50 to $100 million for advertising costs. In contrast, the sales and operating profits for Games Workshop in 2009 were GBP 125.7 million, and that's before taxes, losses and other factors. In short, GW couldn't finance a major studio release by itself even if it used all the money it makes in a year. To do so would require outside investment, which usually means big studios and the Hollywood system (which doesn't mean an American studio, "the Hollywood system" is a worldwide business model) which is notorious for mangling beloved franchises in order to make them more family-friendly and attain a PG-13 rating. This is especially alarming for a property like Warhammer 40,000, wherein the good guys routinely execute their own soldiers for cowardice and think nothing of nuking planets full of civilians ala Alderaan. Suffice to say, watered-down Ultramarines aren't Ultramarines at all, and Games Workshop has wisely passed on Hollywood as a financially-risky option which might alienate fans.

Instead of paying to book theaters and advertise, GW has opted to go with a route where they can pour the majority of funding into the movie itself. This is a cost-saving measure, and will probably improve the overall quality of the film, ensuring they can keep a semblance of control over their intellectual property while still producing a workable movie. Likewise, the succinct running time is a way to save animation expenditures and keep budgets in check. This isn't unusual in CGI films. Toy Story 2, for example, ran only 70 minutes. It is also likely that because it's being released on DVD, the film won't have to be submitted to a ratings board, meaning that all the chainsword splatter we're expecting can be unleashed on some unsuspecting Tyranids/Orks/Chaos Marines without any raised eyebrows at the MPAA and its international equivalents. In general, it looks like the capital investments they've acquired are spread pretty evenly, so no one has too much control over the content or direction of the film. It's a smart move, and a smart investment for their backers.

Because here are the facts, kids: a DVD movie with Ultramarines in it, distributed in a small-to-moderate release and sold mostly at Games Workshop stores and independent retailers, is almost certain to be a financial success. Everyone who plays Warhammer is going to buy a copy of this, everyone who's interested in Warhammer books and comics will buy it, Dawn of War players will buy it, hell, even old-guard like me who only trot their minis out a couple times a year will buy it. It's almost foolproof, this DVD is is going to print its own goddamn money. And when you also factor in that it's basically an advertisement for the hobby as a whole, books, games and all, it's a brilliant business move.

So what will they do with that money? This is pure speculation on my part, but I'd guess they'll use it to make another movie. I'll bet anything this isn't a one-shot deal, and we'll be seeing IMPERIAL GUARD: A Warhammer 40,000 Movie as a follow-up. It would be impractical to do a movie about every army of course, but when you start matching up armies into hero/villain pairs for each movie, GW could run through its stable of mainstream races pretty quickly. So basically, instead of getting one tepid 40k movie on the big screen, there's a possibility of several good ones on the small screen. It's also not unheard of for smaller movies like this to make the festival circuit in order to pick up an award or two as a selling point, so it's possible it could be seen on the big screen somewhere. I'm confident they'll at least play it at Games Day.

You better believe I'm drafting a letter to Harry Knowles urging him to lock down a screening at Fantastic Fest.

As a footnote, this film announcement also explains why Games Workshop dropped the hammer on Damnatus, the charming little German 40k fanfilm-that-could which was hogtied by GW lawyers last year a few weeks before its expected release. At the time, it seemed incredibly mean-spirited of GW to come down on the little group of independent filmmakers, especially since they had, ironically, produced a film that was essentially a tribute to GW's products. There was very negative fan reaction, since frankly, we'd been waiting for a 40k movie ten years and it wasn't like GW was giving us one, right?

Except they were. Turns out Ultramarines was in production as far back as two years ago, and in that context the legal action makes a lot of sense. You see, German copyright law being what it is, even a not-for-profit film can successfully challenge the intellectual property rights of a company like GW. Basically, according to the Germans, if you make it, you own it. GW has a substantial presence in Germany, and they didn't want their own film rights muddied by any rival films, well-intentioned amateur productions or not. Let's hope they dropped a hint about this project as part of the deal to shut Damnatus down.

So, will it be good? Who can tell? I'm personally choosing optimism. A movie is a complex thing that can be ruined by any one of its many ingredients. Even if everything's top-notch, you can have an excellent story, good source material, a decent script, a talented director, and a cast full of wonderful actors and still not have the film come out right. (See: The Black Dhalia.) Right now, we don't really have any idea what it would be like, and I hate to speculate.

So what do you guys think? Ultramarines: good idea as a franchise start point, or not? Disappointed by the direct-to-DVD distribution? Who do you want to see as the villains? Were the Ultramarines the right choice for the inaugural 40k movie?

I'll leave you with the openings to Dawn of War II, just so we can imagine what might one day come to our DVD players.

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