Violence, and violent action, can be difficult to portray. Yet the ability to do so is a necessary part of the fiction writer’s repertoire. Violence is a part of the human condition. If we hairless apes have learned anything in the last 5000 years of existence on planet Earth, it is that violence is a part of the human condition. Thus it becomes us to study the best examples and see how we can go about doing the same.
Space Marine fans have long desired a cinematic exploration of the 40K universe. Eight-foot tall giants running around in powered armor with a short-barreled Heavy Machine Guns, chainsaw swords and Thunder Hammers. What’s not to love? Speaking as a long-time Blood Angels player, I can answer that in two words: Games’ Workshop. AKA Gee Dubs.
The UK based company has long-standing issues with licensing, creativity, cash flow, and not telling a crap story. Yes, I remember the collective pile of rectal cancer rejection which was Matt Ward. Despite being in existence for most of the last 40 years, Games Workshop has had only one officially licensed movie, Ultramarines. This film was short in overall length (70 minutes), violated canon on several points and left many of us wondering exactly who produced this- a pack of meth-addicted squirrels who’ve never read a single page of lore? The movie’s only saving graces are that it was written by Dan Abnett (himself a master storyteller, but out of his depth to some degree in this scenario) and the outstanding voice acting talent of the characters. Were it not for these, Ultramarines would’ve fallen flat on it’s face and drowned in a puddle of possum piss.
Much like publishing, technology is the game changer. In this case, the ability of private individuals to obtain and use at home rendering software capable of creating films. And not just d-rated schlock, but beautifully crafted environments, sound editing, vibrant characters and well-thought out scripts which actually make sense. With budgets a tenth of what Gee Dubs threw at Ultrasmurfs! Bearing this in mind, let us examine Astartes a fan-film produced by one Syama Pedersen of New Zealand. The name itself is taken from the High Gothic (bastardized Latin conceived by Gee Dubs) title given to Space Marines- Adeptus Astartes.
Part 1 opens with scenes aboard a Space Marine capital ship. We see stoic, silent Marines going about their tasks. Several are walking down a hallway, with normal human crew members filing past the walking behemoth which is a common Tactical Marine. At once we are given visual spectacle of these men encased in metal. Every step clanks. We can hear metal on metal ringing with their passage. Nothing is said in the whole 51 seconds. But there has been an establishment of gravitas.
Part 2 is partially spent from the point of view of the Caestus Assault Ram (boarding shuttle) which the Space Marines use to travel between their capital ship and a fleeing enemy vessel. Using a pilot’s perspective is common, but there is no need for such theatrics. Instead the storyteller uses 31 seconds of travel across a flak and missile filled asteroid field to convey a sense of danger. The enemy vessel knows what is coming for them. They fear the contents of the Assault Ram. But their efforts are in vain. At the 32-second mark, the Caestus is burrowing deep into the vessel’s guts in a hurried rush of fire and tortured metal. Then, silence and darkness.
The interior of that enemy vessel is dark. Forbidding. It’s decks are filled with armed men waiting to repel this incursion. The dust and debris around the Caestus’ final resting place still hangs in the air. That’s when the camera changes to a new view. Thermal vision, showing the exact location of the enemy combatants. Out of that dust, they come marching onward as they fire. Projectiles ricochet off their armor, yet they are unmoved to notice, continuing forward instead, and firing still.
The Space Marines systematically switch from one target to another, dropping each as if they [Space Marines] are merely on a range practicing. Bolter shots from their weapons do not simply punch holes through their foes, they wreck and explode, tearing apart unarmored mortal flesh with ease.There is gore, but not to an unnecessary degree. We see enough to know that bad things are happening.
As the video closes, we see the Space Marines moving into a hallway. Still not a word has been spoken. None are necessary. That silence is more forbidding than any threats of dire harm they could pronounce. Their weapons and use of those weapons is all the speech they need.
Part 3 showcases even more violence. The Space Marines are shown moving at speed down hallways, taking contact and gunning down enemies with unerring precision and even dodging missiles! Hordes of normal sized humans are rushing forward to try and counter this assault, but it does not feel like enough. One Space Marine, who is likely the Squad Sergeant, uses a pistol rather than the rifle of his comrades. We see him moving steadily as he clears the long halls, to the point of using his massive knife to end a life with all the casualness of stepping on a cockroach. We also gain the measure of their opponents when a heavy crew-served laser weapon of some kind is wheeled forward and used by the gunner at the triggers to slaughter his fellow crew-members just so he can get at the unnamed Sergeant chasing them. He last only slightly longer than his fellows, dying in a single flash on incandescent plasma. The scene ends on this note.
In each instance, there is no dialogue. Rather the script draws strength from what it portrays: conveying atmosphere through lighting (or lack thereof), through actions taken by characters on either side of the conflict, forcing the viewer to make moral judgments about those actions, and through speed. Here we are not talking about pacing of the story, but how quickly the characters within the story move. Their movements are swift, sure, confident. No hesitation. Even when the Sergeant takes fire from the crew-served laser (which I suspect is a multi-laser rig) he steps out of the line of fire, already readying a flashbang grenade, then rolling right into using his plasma pistol against the hardened target. Fluid, continuous movement. When I imagine an eight-foot tall superhuman clad in powered armor, this is what I want to see!
Parts 4 and 5 give even more of this. Watch it, you won’t be disappointed. Syama stayed incredibly consistent and true to the lore with what he created. And until Part 5, you will not hear any dialogue at all. Because the story doesn’t need any. Because violence does not need a play-by-play in order to bring out emotions and feelings and responses from the reader. Space Marines don’t need to tell anybody that their bad ass killing machines- flying across the void of space, boarding an enemy vessel then slaughtering everybody who got in their way does that for them!
As mentioned previously, Gee Dubs has a tendency to get in way of themselves and bringing quality products to market. I’d like to see more work like Astartes or the equally powerful Death of Hope by Mark Louis Spark. But corporations and Hollywood are notorious for screwing up what can be a very simple formula. As Razorfist pointed out in his Doom: Annihilation rant: “All you have to do is dress a football player in a Doom Guy suit, hand him a gun the size of a water heater. and jolly him out the door to shoot CGI Hellbeasts! This isn’t hard! It’s not nuclear physics!”
Characters don’t need to use speech to convey what they’re doing. If we as writers craft the actions taken well enough, we deliver that message, and our readers keep coming back for more, demanding it of us. Watch Astartes and take notes. Look at the incredible fan response. This is how to deliver a powerful story in a very short amount of time. May we all be so effective in the execution of our craft.
*I’ve taken the liberty of including links to both the YouTube Channel, and the ArtStation profile of the project creator, Syama Pedersen.*