Early in 2008, I had the opportunity, thanks to a friend, to see a film called Mutant Chronicles. It had an interesting cast (even though I’m not a Thomas Jane fan) and a cool sounding premise. After seeing it, I quickly deemed it among the worst films of 2008. Flash-forward a year and a half, and I realize what I saw was an unfinished copy of the film. I have an open mind, and even with that bad taste left in my mouth, I figured I should give the film a second chance and see the finished product. Whoops, I just made a mistake!
Based on an old-school pen-and-paper role-playing game, Mutant Chronicles tells the tale of a machine that hurtled to earth some 10,000 years ago and was sealed away by a congregation of monks. The machine turns humans into mutants, via already-turned mutants dragging them down miles of tunnel and tossing them into the gears. Now in 2707, battles rage for continental territory and during one such skirmish the machine is uncovered and begins running anew. Most of the men are taken out by the emerging mutants, with only a couple of guys escaping, which include Major John “Mitch” Hunter (Thomas Jane) and Corporal Jesus de Berrera (Luis Echegaray). Within six weeks of the machine re-emerging, the world is overrun by mutants and a mad scramble is underway to flee to unaffected off-world planets.
The order of monks knows that there’s just no way all of earth can evacuate, and since they sealed it away all those years ago, have a plan to put a stop to it again, although are well aware that it’s basically a suicide mission. Led by Brother Samuel (Ron Perlman), a suicide squad is gathered, with the payment being two off-world tickets each for those that join to do with as they please. Among the group compiled are Hunter and Berrera, Corporal Valerie Chinois Duval (Devon Aoki), Corporal Juba Kim Wu (Tom Wu), Lieutenant Maximillian Emile von Steiner (Benno Fürmann) and others that have nothing to lose. The trek will be perilous, especially considering they’re not even sure if the religious book the monks follow has all the answers, or whether they’re simply going in completely blind.
The first thing you’re going to notice about Mutant Chronicles is the decidedly unique look of the film. It’s a love it or hate it thing, and if you’ve seen the trailer and cringed, don’t even bother seeing the full-length because you’ll be getting much the same. I’m not a fan of shooting films in this type of CGI-heavy fashion, where even the backgrounds are computer generated (although to be fair, Kazuaki Kiriya’s Casshern looks amazing, and was astoundingly made for only six million US dollars, which is significantly less than what it cost to make this supposedly “low budget” film), but the basis of the narrative was enough to have me overlook it and hope for good things. At its best, such as the opening scene in the trenches and some snowy landscapes mid-film, the visuals successfully transport you into an apocalyptic fantasy world. At its worst, which is pretty much everything else, it looks like someone stuck live-action characters in my Xbox 360 game. Even areas where practical effects would have sufficed, like blood splatter, bullet wounds, and the muzzle flash of guns are created via CGI, and it just looks silly. Making it all the more perplexing is the make-up effects on the mutants is surprisingly decent, so it’s odd why the decision was made to rely so heavily on post-production effects, which I have to think took up a hell of a lot more time.
Even if you can overlook all of this, it’s not as if you’ll discover some amazingly in-depth story lurking beneath. The script is among the most underdeveloped I’ve seen in a while, and it screams of being done half-assed. How this script ever made it out of pre-production is one of earth’s greatest mysteries. We’re never told where the initial mutants came from (when the machine was uncovered, did it make them THAT fast, or were they down there for thousands of years? Are they immortal?), what the mutants overall intentions are, or why the world is the way it is. Which honestly is a damn good question, considering everything was hell even before the mutants re-emerged. The entire mission to find the machine (which came from space…WHAT?!) and blow it up doesn’t even make a lot of sense. If the original people that sealed it up realized the damage it could do if it was re-awakened, why didn’t they do so in the first place? It would have saved everyone a hell of a lot of trouble. And then there’s that completely unnecessary moment when a member of Mitch’s original platoon turns up near the end, and it’s simply amazing that they just happened to stumble upon him. Even with mutants running around, this was the most unbelievable moment of the film.
The cast is pretty immense, but outside of a few characters, they’re all forgettable and paper-thin, serving mainly as cannon fodder for the mutants. The acting, outside of Ron Perlman who does his best with what he’s given, is laughably bad; sorry Mr. Jane, I still lay awake every night trying to figure out how you have a career. And then there’s John Malkovich. The only reason I can fathom as to why he’s in this film is that he lost a bet with Satan himself. The part is so insignificant that if you blink, you’ll miss it. At least he doesn’t put any effort into the role; I’ve never seen an actor look more bored or uninterested as Malkovich does here. He lacks any inflection in his line delivery and sounds as if he’s on a morphine drip; then again, I suppose he’s laughing all the way to the bank.
One thing that makes me more annoyed with the overall film is the fact that it actually has flashes of brilliance on occasion. Take for instance the action, which at times is cheesy as hell, having characters unconvincingly punch towards the camera as if we're looking through the eyes of their adversaries, but then there are moments that are wonderfully choreographed. The scene in the elevator shaft is surprisingly exhilarating, and is what I had hoped to find in the film as a whole. There’s also some fantastically ridiculous dialogue that, if this had been made in the 80s and embraced its low-brow nature instead of attempting to masquerade as an action blockbuster, would have made for a film that would have garnered a Midnight Movie-type following. The greatest of all comes when we find out that one of monks can’t even read, so she blindly believes in a book that she doesn’t even understand. When she asks Thomas Jane’s character what he believes in, he quips back “I’m not paid to believe. I’m paid to fuck shit up.” 80s Ah-nold would be proud.
I guess it should say something that even with my horrible initial experience with Mutant Chronicles, I was still able to sit through the film from beginning to end a second time without much effort, although I have to say I think I tolerated it more than I enjoyed it. It wasn’t as awful as the rough cut, but it wasn’t much better either. I’ve seen a few people defend the film by saying “it is what it is”. If they mean it’s a lukewarm, badly envisioned sci-fi/apocalyptic/action flick with a half-baked story and a ton of convoluted ideas, than I guess I’d have to agree. If you want some brainless action on a Saturday night, you can do much, much better than Mutant Chronicles.
Magnolia Pictures presents Mutant Chronicles on Blu-Ray in a stacked Director’s Cut edition. The film is presented in 1.85:1 1080p anamorphic widescreen and is a mixed bag. At its best, which is oddly enough mostly during the moments when the effects work, it looks great, with nice color levels, depth, and a well-defined level of sharpness. Alternately, at times it looks very flat, with black levels becoming muddied. Reds are also overly saturated, to the point where there’s digital noise on Samuel’s robes, and the blood spatter looks like a gaudy neon red. Of course, this could be more due to the process used to create the film, but Blu-Ray accentuates the issues. On the flipside, the 5.1 DTS Master Audio track is excellent. Every speaker on your system gets a workout with this one, with action scenes sounding great and not overly processed or loud just for the sake of it. Gunshots sound realistic, stabbings sound appropriately nasty, and the musical track will immerse you nicely. Dialogue comes through fine, although a bit low, and sometimes you may find yourself putting the subs on for clarification, especially during the opening scene in the trenches where so much is going on.
As much as I didn’t like the film itself, I have to commend the release for the incredible amount of extras that are packed on to this thing; if you’re a fan, you’ll be in heaven, and major films need to take note: THIS is how you do a special edition. A nearly 2-hour documentary on the making of the film is the biggest thing to dig into here, and I have to be honest: it was more entertaining than the film! It looked daunting at first, considering my feelings on the film, but after twenty minutes I found myself enjoying it way more than I expected. If you want to see the blood, sweat, and tears that go into making a film, you need to see this. If you’re a budding filmmaker yourself, this borders on essential, and shows how if you’re passionate about your project, you can overcome pretty much anything. There’s about a half-hour's worth of interviews from the cast and crew as well, which includes just about everyone. The most interesting is Malkovich, who basically says flat-out it sucks working on American film sets and how much more fun it is to work with a UK crew (although you can’t tell it by his unenthusiastic performance).
Next up is a promotional short that director Simon Hunter produced to get financers interested in making the full-length. It’s interesting to see the differences between this and what actually became the finished product, as it seems like originally he was shooting for an ecological theme. To prove how extensive these extras are, there’s a making of for this short. Crazy! Also included is a Comic-Con Q&A session, an HDNet look at the film (basically trying to sell it if you’ve never heard about it), a piece on the visual effects, 20 minutes worth of webisodes (covering ground that you’ve already seen in previous extras, so they’re pretty useless), a couple of stills galleries, a BDLive feature that isn’t working yet as of this writing, and the film’s theatrical trailer. Only the trailer and the HDNet feature are in HD.
*The clickable screenshots on the left are from the Blu-Ray, although scaled down to 720p to conserve bandwidth.
Please feel free to discuss "Mutant Chronicles" here, in our forums!