This sci-fi action-adventure drama desperately wants to be The Little Film That Could. Relying on technical ingenuity to compensate for its relatively modest budget and on a few dependable character actors rather than box office stars, MUTANT CHRONICLES aims for the grandeur and spectacle of a major movie while trying to craft an epic story of redemption and sacrifice against bitter odds. On a technical level, the film succeeds to a large extent: you know most of those elaborate backgrounds, cityscapes, and warfare are computer-generated, but they blend in well enough with the sepia tone cinematography so that you don’t care. On the artistic level, however, the scenario remains rooted in a B-movie mentality that undermines the higher aspirations. It’s loaded with battles and bloodshed that bring the story to a stand-still at regular intervals, alternating with heavy-handed and long-winded exposition that strives – and fails – to convince us we are seeing something like a futuristic variation on LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING. The schizoid elements cancel each other out, leaving behind a film that is not exactly bad but doesn’t add up to much of anything.
Basic set up is that, long ago, an extraterrestrial machine fell to Earth and turned its victims into inhuman cybernetic soldiers. Mankind managed to rally and defeat the menace, but the machine lies buried somewhere in Europe. In an interesting twist on the usual post-apocalyptic scenario, humanity has regressed not to the sword-and-sandal era but to something resembling the First World War, with the world now divided into four corporations instead of many countries. A battle between two of the corporations explodes the seal covering the machine, unleashing the mutants, who drag their victims underground to turn them into mutants as well. While most of humanity is abandoning Earth for off-world colonies, Brother Samuel (Perlman), leader of an order that knows the legend of the machine, gets funding from Constantine (Malkovich) to put together a suicide mission to save the world. He enlists cynical soldier Major Hunter (Thomas Jane), along with several other warriors from different corporations, who join forces to face the menace threatening the all of civilization.
MUTANT CHRONICLES gets off to a slow start that sets the pace for the rest of the film. The initial exposition does not so much set up the story as set up the opening battle, whose plot function is to introduce us to Hunter and to unleash the mutants. Unfortuantely, Simon Hunter tries to deliver a SAVING PRIVATE RYAN sequence that stands on its own; instead it just drags on and on while we wait for the inevitable. Then when it finally happens, we need a bunch more exposition from Brother Samuel to explain how to put down the newly re-released threat. By the time the mission finally begins, you are likely to feel as if the movie has been going on forever, and then it just keeps going – with several more action scenes that never intensify the action but simply continue at the same level we have been watching all along.
Jane and Perlman do solid work in the lead, as does Sean Pertwee in a supporting role, but the script doesn’t give them a whole lot to work with that you can’t see coming a mile away (If you can’t guess that the cynical non-believer Hunter is going to come through in the end and save the day, you haven’t watched many movies.) The rest of the MUTANT CHRONICLES supporting cast does not fare so well. They look right for their parts, but they haven’t got the acting chops to take the script’s attempts at characterization and make us believe them, making us wish the character moments had simply been excised for a more streamlined approach. The one most ill served is Devon Aoki (Miho in SIN CITY), once again playing a tough warrior chick; lines of dialogue meant to humanize her as something other than a walking stereotype fall flatter than her slain opponents. On the plus side, John Malkovich shows up for two or three scenes and proves that, even when just collecting a paycheck, a really good actor can bring some life to relatively lifeless material.
MUTANT CHRONICLES boasts some impressive special effects that create a reasonably convincing future world. The deliberately drab sepia-toned look is getting to be a bit old (it seems to be what cinematographers do these days because, for commercial reasons, they are not allowed to work in black-and-white), but it suits the story. Unfortunately, the computer-generated imagery falls short when it comes to supplying the gore for the fight scenes: the bright splashes of red look almost literally Photoshopped onto the settings.
It is interesting to note that back in the 1980s producer Edward R. Pressman used to offer authentically large scale epics like CONAN THE BARBARIAN; as late as the 1990s he was producing interesting films like THE CROW. MUTANT CHRONICLES is a considerable step down. The film deserves credit for wanting to be something more, but it might have turned out better if it had simply embraced what it is: a B-movie about some army guys fighting some monsters.
NOTE: MUTANT CHRONICLES made its debut on Video on Demand.
MUTANT CHRONICLES (April 2008). Directed by Simon Hunter. Written by Phillip Eisner. Cast: Thomas Jane, Ron Perlman, Devon Aoki, Sean Pertwee, Benno Furmann, John Malkovich, Anna Walton, Tom Wu, Steve Toussaint, Luis Echegaray, Pras Michel.