Monday, 13 June 2016

Warhammer 40,000: Exterminatus (Fan Film Review)

As the credits rolled, I knew in my gut this was going to be a painful one to review.

Trying to cover any fan film, no matter the quality, is always a difficult thing. Lacking the massive budget or experience most big name productions benefit from, it's hard not to sound harsh when analyzing their qualities. Even the best among them feature a few questionable choices in the writing and directorial departments, and because these are labors of love a few critics can feel pressured to pull their punches. Exterminatus however is likely one few will truly stand up to fully defend.

Lasting a scant seven minutes, the film follows a Dark Angel seeking to retrieve a human captive from the forces of Chaos. Launching a lone assault upon his impending executioners, he races against time to defeat them before exterminatus falls upon the planet.

At its core this story actually isn't all that bad. It's brief, and we do get a sense of what the marine's priority is, his objective, a race against time and it also keeps things limited. It's a chance to see a single marine's prowess on a tight budget, while still offering plenty of opportunities for fans to see the superhuman prowess of an Angel of Death. Now, that's all fine and dandy until you see the execution and start to wonder if this wasn't rushed out the door half finished. For starters, we're told little to nothing of the story and see nothing in the way of actual story establishment to smooth over certain facts.

Why is the Dark Angel attempting this alone? Who is this human? Why are the Chaos cultists bothering to hold a trial for him at all? Why are they gathered in this one warehouse? Not answered, and the film just steams ahead in the apparent hope that the audience will make up their own answers as it swings into a big fight scene. There's a distinct lack of direction in these moments, and you'd honestly be forgiven for thinking that this was a half finished product bundled together and shoved out the door early. Stage by stage you can see how each initial scene might link together and the overarching plot might work, but time and time again it keeps skipping necessary steps or general bits of info. While the film itself quickly cuts from a battle barge approaching the planet to his quarters, the introduction we get to him almost seems as if there were shots omitted from the script:

"After years of training, his body has become a weapon. He is ready for anything, but still he is surprised when he discovers there is someone still worth saving on this planet." 

This statement is all we get and it tells the audience little to nothing about his personality or individual traits. While it might have worked with the right man in the director's chair, there's an uncaring matter-of-fact style to it which just robs the scene of any drama. It sticks out like a sore thumb in each scene, lacking any visual storytelling devices to really help build upon these statements or give them weight, and they're just belted out all at once. Worse still, the narrator himself speaks in a droll, uninterested American accent which is more at home in a Western than the grand Gothic style of M41. Every time he speaks you're instantly taken out of the experience and left wondering when Jim Raynor is going to show up.

It's small bits which just seem to lack any planning or real thought which will keep taking you out of the experience, both on major and minor levels. The opening, for example, is just a general establishment of Warhammer lore. It's something ultimately unnecessary given this would only appeal to established fans, but it's an old trope people can stand by. However add a poorly translated script which is one step away from gratuitous engrish, and this jump from unnecessary but atmospheric to a full-on facepalm worthy addition to the film. This would be bad enough for the opening, but it's these minor failings which keep putting the film down over and over again. They're small enough to not stand out entirely but just noticeable to make the production look ridiculous. Ranging from a spaceship with a stock jet engine sound effect to handcuffs obviously too large to hold the prisoner, the near constant barrage of production goofs just robs each scene of narrative weight.

Even once it gets into the actual fight itself, Exterminatus sadly still falls short. While fans could likely accept cultists wielding uzis over autoguns and an astartes bolt pistol producing little to no recoil, the poorly presented fight is what kills it. The obvious bulk of the astartes armour hardly helps, but few blows seem to have any real weight to them;a problem hardly helped by how obviously hesitant each actor is around the delicate props. Even when the film is visibly trying to crop around the thunder hammer landing or focus upon the action, it just moves moment by moment, sticking to easily directed micro-sections of a fight. The cultist fighters remain static for the most part, only moving so they can be taken down one at a time, while the marine himself is slow and overly clunky. Rather than fighting in a Robocop style tank-like manner, with a slow but purposeful movement to his actions, any strike by the marine is overly clumsy and very limited in terms of movement.

Just when you think it's about as low as it can go, the story forgets the "show don't tell" rule of filmmaking, narrating about an exact event taking place before the audience. Top that off with a non-ending to a very limited narrative arc, and the fan film sadly closes out on an unsatisfactory note. A failing which is as frustrating as it is bittersweet thanks to the obvious dedication and love by the crew. You can see this for yourself whilst watching the film, but someone there was obviously pushing to make the best of what they had. The marine himself is convincing despite the poor fight choreography, the big money shot of the battle barge holds up well and a few minor in-universe moments such as a servitor cameo is very welcome indeed. What's more, the actual shot-by-shot staging and individual presentation is beautiful when viewed independently, offering some truly awe inspiring moments for a fan film; something which is only enhanced by the extremely atmospheric score. It's moments like this where you can see a glimmer of a great film through the mistakes, and the real talent which when into the Exterminatus' secondary elements. It's just a damn shame the essential parts were so badly botched in spite of this.

Watching Exterminatus is akin to viewing Ridley Scott's Legend. You can praise it to no end when it comes to certain props, effects and its visual direction, but the moment it comes to the meat of the story there's little to say which isn't scornful. While aspiring fan directors would do well to watch this one and learn from its mistakes, those after a solid Warhammer production are sure to be disappointed. It sadly looks as if re-watching Damnatus is your only option at the moment, folks. 


  1. Whenever I see something like this, I wonder if it could still be slightly salvaged, and in this case I think it could. Granted the fights are a little beyond hope, however add in some narration/animation before the opening to give us context, redo the audio (remove the bad sound effects, remove the unnecessary narration, that sort of thing) and I think it could be vastly improved. Maybe someday we'll see a decent fan edit of this fan film.

    1. Oh it definitely could be fixed with the right person behind it, and as the tail end of this review said there are good elements to it. It's honestly just a case of it being a film which kept taking a step forwards with every scene, but immediately took two steps back in the next one, meaning it gradually went more and more wrong as it went along. Ah well, here's hoping others do look into this one when it comes to seeing the pitfalls behind their own projects.