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Internet Oddities: ASTARTES

Alexander Wallace visits the forty-first millennium. Packs for war.
Of all the myriad horrors in the grim darkness of the far future, the most iconic is doubtlessly the Space Marine, or the Adeptus Astartes. These armored soldiers are the elite of the Imperium’s armed forces; a single marine can turn the tide of an entire battle. They have been brought to life in novels many times (Graham McNeill’s Uriel Ventris Chronicles is quite enjoyable) and video games many times (Space Marine is an enjoyable hack-and-slash), but not many times has this nightmare of a galaxy been brought to film.

Games Workshop was not willing to do it recently, so it fell upon a fan from New Zealand. The series is five parts; it’ll take about fifteen minutes to watch in its entirety...

For those of you unfamiliar with the hellscape that is Warhammer 40,000, you’ve just watched a very good introduction to the feel of the setting. It’s not a primer on all the different factions or the way the magic works, no, but what it does do is convey the compelling atmosphere that makes the entire setting tick.

In many ways, Astartes is effectively a horror movie, albeit one told mostly in gestures.This series is surprisingly quiet; the only words uttered are those seethed by whatever demonic thing is inside that glowing, writhing ball. This is a story told in the language of war: of bullets being ejected out of the barrels of bolters and heretics crying as they are purged in the Emperor’s name. The action is uncompromising and brutal; this is a commando raid against a heresy that the Imperium will not suffer to exist. The marines attack with a raw, savage brutality that reminds you that this is not Star Trek, with its utopian optimism; here, in the forty-first millennium, there is only war.

Like a tradition of science fiction horror movies going all the way back to Alien, Astartes uses the cramped setting of the space hulk to incredible effect. It is a claustrophobic environment where heresy and death lurk around every corner. The enemies here are possessed by demons, and demons lurk in the shadows where the light (of whatever deity you choose) does not shine. The lighting here is used very well, illuminating and obscuring in just the right way to heighten the sensation of complete and utter dread. The only times the setting isn’t cramped is when there is some cinematographic flair; see the shot where one of these marines leaps across a gap to butcher the crew of a gun.

One of the more subtle, but every bit as impressive, elements of Astartes is the characterization (admittedly, of the Marines as a whole rather than any individual). They are deployed in utter silence to this space hulk via a sequence that reminds me of the opening to The Force Awakens, grimly aware that their very presence means bloodshed (though they most certainly would blame the bloodshed on the heretics). Perhaps it’s merely the Kuleshov effect, but you can almost see that steel-jawed determination in the blank expressions of their helmets. The series shows the philosophy behind the Adeptus Astartes in a manner reminiscent of Dawn of War’s Gabriel Angelos, another great representation of that brotherhood.

A word to say regarding the ending: it’s open ended and vast, much like the galaxy as a whole. That one marine is sent to another type of hell entirely, and we are left to wonder as to his fate. The emotion evoked by that scene is one of the key reasons why I think the Imperium is so compelling as an entity: they fight a fight that is valiant but doomed as the barbarians are at the gates and closing in on the Rome that is Terra. They know to face their adversaries with faith and with honor, all the while knowing that it will all be ultimately for naught. In a world where people choose their causes based on what is trending on social media, such an old-fashioned code of conduct is compelling. In this, and in so many other ways, Astartes shows you all the emotional complexities of the setting, and both are all the better for it.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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