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Mutant Chronicles (2008) Review

Mutant Chronicles was directed by Simon Hunter (Lighthouse, Edie), written by Philip Eisner (Firestarter 2: Rekindled, Event Horizon) whose script was inspired by the pen-and-paper game of the same name, and stars Thomas Jane (Slayers, Dig), Ron Perlman (The Last Victim, Hell on the Border), Benno Furmann (Anatomy, Babylon Berlin), Devon Aoki (War, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead), Tom Wu (Marco Polo, Revolver), Anna Walton (Soulmate, Cherry Tree), Luis Echegaray (Vinyl, Party Like the Rich and Famous), Sean Pertwee (The Invitation, Gotham), and John Malkovich (White Elephant, Shattered). It follows a band of international soldiers as they repel an army of mutants and seek to destroy their source.

The Plot: Mashing tropes from corporate espionage, classic action, and wartime objectivism is an interesting idea for a movie, even if that almost guarantees the rest of it will default on becoming its own entity. Eisner has the right idea but can’t balance his storytelling in action and in stasis.

Narration from Brother Samuel (Perlman) describes a decimated world now ruled by four constantly warring corporations. What humanity doesn’t know is that long ago, a machine crashed on Earth and was safeguarded by a secret brotherhood, and while Maj. Hunter (Jane) and Rooker (Pertwee) of the Capital corporation are fighting Lt. Von Steiner (Furrman) of the Bauhaus company, it whirrs to life again, soon releasing violent mutants back onto the surface. There’s plenty to like with the literally conflicting corporations idea, more so than the rather generic mutant-oriented business (pun if you want it), but Mutant Chronicles has a hard time clarifying itself.

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For one, why must humanity continue to fight over Earth when, upon the reveal to the corporate overlords, including Constantine (Malkovich), most of humanity is sent to established colonies on other planets? Details like this, as well as the musings about the prophecy of “The Mutant Chronicles”, a book held by the Brotherhood, are lost in the mix. After word spreads, Samuel brings Hunter and von Steiner, along with Duval (Aoki), Juba (Wu), Severian (Walton), and Jesus (Echegaray) on a mission to reach the machine and destroy it.

Effectively reducing the narrative down to a simple mission structure takes away a lot of the personality of Mutant Chronicles, leaving it with nothing to distinguish it from other war movies aside from the obvious beats. It’s a shame, as the exposition doesn’t do much, and everything soon descends into repetition.

The Characters: Usually movies with an ensemble can scrape by with various personalities without delving into each participant’s intricacies. On rare occasions, they will get fleshed out or at least receive a full sketch. Mutant Chronicles is not one of those occasions.

Hunter is the same grizzled, wisecracking reluctant hero done ad nauseam for decades. Weary after seeing so much death in the midst of combat, he doesn’t much care for what or who he’s fighting for, so long as he and the few friends he still has come back alive. Naturally, his arc revolves around relearning empathy and finding faith in humanity, but it’s done so sloppily that it loses much of its meaning.

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Samuel doesn’t fare differently than Hunter, as his character can be simplified into “the religious one” without losing much personality. Since the movie doesn’t do much to personalize his religion, Samuel’s values can be interpreted as a modified form of Christianity; and that’s where his traits end. Typical scenes of pleading for others to have faith while doubting his own are present and the only hint of development for the Brother.

Supporting characters fare even worse, as their introductions each last about ten seconds. Hunter (the director) all but forced the audience to identify them by their corporate upbringings, making for a completely rounded-out roster that’s full of empty spaces.

The Action: Director Simon Hunter was handed a silver platter of potential in terms of Mutant Chronicles’ action. With a setting that resembles an alternate, more steampunk early 20th century, and a race of underground melee mutants – there’s much to do – however, the movie rarely does.

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Opening with a trench fight that plays out largely like one would equate to World War One, does a good job of filling in the viewer with the kind of weaponry and tactics this version of the world is currently utilizing. Movement is sparse out of the need to survive; juxtaposing sedentary combat with the unstoppable rush of the titular creatures helps alleviate the familiarity of it all. While it still ends up residing in the realm of cliché, there’s a spice to it because of the third party involved.

Spice becomes salt soon enough though, as Mutant Chronicles begins to repeat itself soon after the team deploys for their mission, although there’s a solid sequence of their drop pod losing its first parachute, causing an argument about using the backup. Scenes of the group getting into skirmishes pepper the second half of the feature, but few of them are anything worth writing home about. The gunfights are perfunctorily performed – the actors typically stand still and shoot for a few seconds, a mutant drops dead, reload, repeat. It’s far from dynamic and thusly far from memorability.

Each member of the team is gifted a sword, and each mutant wields a blade on one hand, raising hopes for melee battles. While they do happen, the direction of these scenes is often jittery, with the camera cutting too quickly for much to resonate. This is probably due to the choreography not being up to snuff, though. Closer quarters do invite some decent sequences toward the very end, but they too are unremarkable reruns of what came before. Considering the universe Mutant Chronicles creates, there’s a startling lack of invention in its action.

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The Technics: Independent features typically don’t pair with epic aspirations, but this small picture tries very hard to connect the dots. Technically, the movie is reaching for more than it can grasp, but there are some applaudable moments and techniques on hand.

Creating a world in chaos isn’t easy to visualize on a mechanical level, but the people behind the effects gave all they had. Hunter tries to show the scale with blasted cities, scorched streets, and lots of grime; the kicker is that a good chunk of each shot is a mix between matte paintings imposed via greenscreen and practical set design/miniature work. Because the whole of Mutant Chronicles is set in a decimated landscape, it seems like the helmer spread resources too thin; quality varies from scene to scene and the elements clash too harshly to convince, though not for lack of trying.

Pacing the movie on a higher tempo does help to mitigate the weak dialogue and muddied background elements. Despite most of the content being familiar and often lost within the mix of inspirations and ideas, Mutant Chronicles moves fast enough to maintain its core desire of ripping apart a faceless enemy. Most of the cast does struggle with what little they were handed, but they all look the part and blow apart the mutants effectively enough, except for Perlman, Aoki, and Echegaray, who flop completely.

Whyever Mutant Chronicles came out so dully watchable is unknown; a premise this rich with lore, factions, characters, and action shouldn’t be so unremarkable (barring its look), but sometimes it just happens.

Mutant Chronicles is available on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital platforms from Magnolia Pictures.

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