With a vast, long-developing universe, Warhammer 40K is perfect movie material – as long as Hollywood stays away.
A recent review of X-Men: Days of Future Past by Kevin Maher basically saw Maher call most superheroes proto-fascists. And you can find another article of Maher’s at Esquire – to summarise what Mr Maher wrote there, the writer argued that Hollywood had been taken over by geeks, and was decrying the subsequent loss of real storytelling and filmmaking that that takeover had resulted in. Now, whether or not you agree with his tone, Maher’s argument holds some truths. Some. Because although Warhammer 40,000, originating as the tabletop miniatures game Rogue Trader back in 1987, might have geeky origins, it’s anything but.
Warhammer 40,000 is one of the most intelligent, richly detailed and well-defined science fiction franchises of our day
Warhammer 40,000, or simply 40K, is one of the most intelligent, richly detailed and well-defined science fiction franchises of our day. Yes a lot of kids play the game, but they do so to a background that is littered with adult themes. Yes 40K has its supermen in the form of the Space Marines, but these are supermen who are just as likely to enslave, murder and mutilate the weak as they are to defend them. The defining event of the backstory, the Horus Heresy, draws from the bible in its themes of betrayal, pitting father against son, the incorruptible against the debased. The God-Emperor sacrifices himself, slowly dying over the next ten millennia, just as Christ allowed himself to be crucified so that humanity’s sins would be forgiven.
As its popularity and prominence have grown since 1987, so 40K has spawned books, audio drama, computer games, even an official movie, Ultramarines, as well as the fan-created Lord Inquisitor, but it’s never had the big, live action movie that it needs to really do these big, adult themes – which are so intrinsic to its world – justice. Live action because any animated feature, even a CGI one, will always carry a certain opprobrium, no matter how good a film it is (the idea being that it’s ‘meant for kids’). A live action film would be able to refute this, and have the intellectual muscle with which to knock back any criticisms.
There are two ways the live action Warhammer 40K film could happen. The first is via Hollywood, but that would fail. Hollywood would go for Space Marines as a child goes for sweets. Commercially, it’d be right to do so: Space Marines would bring in cinema audiences. They’re popular, they’re superhuman and they’re probably a big reason behind 40K’s popularity. Such a film would succeed in America, where there are fans galore. So a film about Space Marines, with the attendant £100 million-plus budget and Javier Bardem as Pedro Kantor, would do fantastically in America, in Britain – anywhere that had a cinema and a sizeable male population.
The 40K movie made the Hollywood way, however wildly commercially successful it ended up being, would be the wrong way
Except that way, however wildly commercially successful it ended up being, would still be the wrong way. Because it would be full of action scenes and lots of shooting and explosions; geeky, in other words. Hollywood is making a lot of geeky films. Disney alone has Marvel’s timetable planned until 2028, Star Wars’ new sagas laid out until at least 2020, and the ratings for all these films is rarely higher than 12A. A 40K film made this way would be a watered-down, neutered version that would piss off anyone past childhood who wasn’t taking a kid to watch the movie. What’s more, it wouldn’t stand out at all from the crop of such films Hollywood is currently cultivating and harvesting.
Any 40K film that did the franchise justice would have to be R-rated; in Warhammer 40,000, people die en-masse, and pretty horribly. They get hacked to death by Khorne Berserkers. They get sliced to ribbons by Dark Eldar wyches. They get eaten, wholesale, by Tyranids. They get shot by their own side for the slightest bit of hesitation in not wanting to charge to their deaths. 40K has never held back on the killing. Like Judge Dredd, it’s one gorefest after another, fashioned as a labour of love. A true 40K film would need to be an 18 – it would need to be a film where even the heroes came to grisly ends. No ending up stuck in the ice for 60-odd years. Here, choosing to crash a plane means you die.
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40K though, besides the killing, is based on a conundrum. In this universe, being open-minded means being corruptible, which means chaos. One of the quotes from the games is “an open mind is like a fortress with its gates left unbarred”. Here, innovation and creativity are a gateway to possession, so those things are stifled. In Mechanicum, one of the characters says in tones of awed reverence, “you mean we created something new?” It’s just not the done thing. Yet without creativity a society is doomed to extinction, because it loses the ability to adapt. Any film would have to be original and intelligent, reflecting the quality of writing found in the books. It would have to find a way to showcase this social paradox yet also retain that unrelenting darkness so integral to 40K. Take the Sisters of Battle.
With a 40K movie we get a modern film that still reflects social and religious themes, a film that relies on character as well as action
These warrior maidens aren’t scantily clad strumpets with swords, and they can fly the flag for having more female characters in what has been a very male-dominated genre. After all, 40K has plenty of strong female characters. It even has worlds where the gender roles are reversed, where it’s the women who rally to the banner, take up arms and defend the homestead, while the men stay behind to raise the children and collect chicken eggs from the barn. Do a film like that, with only one or two male characters, and you get a film that has the strongest argument for rejecting any charge of “geekiness” as defined by Kevin Maher. This would be a film where strong female characters are in the majority, where they lead and men follow. Do that and you can retain your core constituency, Warhammer 40,000 aficionados, while getting newcomers to come on board as fans of the franchise.
It can be done by a British studio, on a modest budget (by Hollywood standards anyway), the way Dredd was made, and be just as critically successful. Why? Because it will need to get down to showing the essentials of what makes 40K such an interesting world: that the very thing saving humanity from corruption in the short-term, the Imperium’s tyranny, will destroy it in the long run. Everybody wins. We get a modern film that still reflects social and religious themes, and is intelligent to boot. A film that is more than the sum of its special effects, that relies on character as well as action for its plot. Something we can all enjoy, that moves away from a universe where yes, women and black guys are there, but only in small parts to help white men to save the day.
Read more on Dredd: Why Judgement will be back for a sequel
Featured image: Saddam Pinochet (via Flickr)
Inset images: THQ; Daniel Garcia Garcia (via Flickr)