As Opposed to the Perfectly Normal Chronicles

by Arthur B

Mutant Chronicles isn't a very good film.
If films based on computer games have a patchy history, films based on tabletop RPGs have an even worse one. Admittedly, there haven't been many produced; there are the two Dungeons & Dragons movies, and the Dragonlance film, and very little else. I'm not, for the moment, going to consider things like Underworld which are very obviously inspired by particular RPG settings but aren't licensed adaptations, but even they have a patchy record - and arguably Underworld isn't really about exploring a thinly-veiled version of the World of Darkness so much as it is Len Wiseman's epic treatise on how much he appreciates his wife's buttocks.

Mutant Chronicles is not going to change the scorecard. Its history is convoluted. In the mid-1980s Target Games, Sweden's most significant native publisher of tabletop roleplaying games, put out the Mutant RPG, which had a post-apocalyptic premise reminiscent of games like Gamma World. Subsequent editions and spin-off games would explore a variety of different premises; Mutant Chronicles itself came out in 1993 and had a science fantasy setting in which great corporations had spread out into the stars but a dire curse had brought apocalyptic devastation to Earth. Eventually, Target Games went under, the rights to Mutant Chronicles were picked up by Paradox Entertainment, and the great licensing game began; Fantasy Flight Games got a license to make a miniatures wargame based on the setting, COG Games were licensed to produce the tabletop RPG and then spectacularly failed to do anything with the rights for three years so the license was revoked. And Grosvenor Park Productions got to make the movie.

So, premise time: it's 2707, which the front of the box would have us believe is the 23rd Century but never mind. Four megacorporations rule the world in a situation of Orwellian perpetual warfare, squabbling over Earth's remaining natural resources. Advanced steam technology has arisen to cope with the complete consumption of other power sources - but the greatest danger proves to come from the distant past. Aeons ago, at the end of the last Ice Age, an alien machine fell to Earth and set about converting dead and dying human beings into Necromutants, warped killing machines who would go forth, kill, and drag the corpses back to the machine in order to produce more Necromutants. A great hero united all of humanity against the Necromutant threat, and the machine and the last of the Necromutants were eventually buried in a deep hole somewhere in Eastern Europe, and sealed with a big seal which was then buried and forgotten about - save for the Brotherhood, an elite secret society comprised of the descendants of the leader of mankind at the time.

In the 23rd Century (and specifically the year 2707), of course, Eastern Europe is no-man's-land - a war zone fought over by two of the megacorporations, Bauhaus and Capitol, and in a particularly violent confrontation between the two sides the seal is uncovered and shattered. The remaining Necromutants pour out and start killing soldiers, and soon enough you have a slightly more intelligent form of a zombie plague on the loose.

Now, you would think this would be easy enough for the megacorporations to contain; if the zombies have to take dead bodies back to Eastern Europe to be zombified, that's going to set a natural limit on the extent to which they can spread - they're not going to get to the Americas or Australia any time soon, for example, and the distance they'd have to travel to reach Kamtchatka or South Africa and then drag the bodies of the fallen back would mean that the losses from such expeditions would far outweigh any gains. If the you just made a big cordon and dumped large rocks on the general area at high speed from orbit you'd deal with the problem pretty effectively. Fuck, why not just drop a big bomb in the hole and let it cave in, it's pretty clear that the Necromutants can't dig if they didn't manage to make a way out in the millennia they spent down in the pit so that'd pretty efficiently solve the matter.

But apparently they are incompetent, or perhaps the original designers didn't think this point through too clearly because it was only ever meant to be distant-past background material for the game rather than something which was actually interacted with directly, so even though the corporations do band together eventually to face the crisis they don't do a very good job of it. All seems lost, until the Brotherhood leader Brother Samuel (Ron Perlman) emerges to put an offer to Constantine, the head of Capitol (John Malkovich): arrange for a small, multicorporate team of soldiers to accompany him on a suicide mission to blow up the machine with what they believe to be an ancient bomb from ancient days (because an ordinary bomb won't lend itself to an overcomplicated climax in which they have to puzzle out how to set the ancient bomb off), a suicide mission from which nobody can expect to return. Constantine eventually agrees, and gives Samuel the means to convince a few good men and women to take up the quest: tickets for the evacuation ships heading to the off-world colonies, so whoever chooses to give their life on the mission can at least send their loved ones to safety.

The party consists of good ol' Ron, a bunch of forgettable people whose personalities are so thinly developed I can't even remember their names and so can't properly credit the actors, and our hero, Sergeant John Mitchell "Mitch" Hunter (Thomas Jane), who was actually at the battle in which the Necromutants were released. No prizes for guessing which party members survive to the end.

There's no getting around the fact that this is a deeply flawed film on all sorts of levels. There's some good acting talent assembled here, but none of them seem inspired to do very well. Ron Perlman and Sean Pertwee (who is present as his typical gruff British army officer supporting character that he plays in everything he's in) just play their stock characters, whilst Malkovich mumbles over his lines in a way which is supposed to indicate that his character is ill but just comes across as Malkovich wanting to do the minimum possible in order to finish his scenes and leave. The filmmakers make the classic mistake of including too many people in the Fellowship of the Bomb without giving them sufficient screen time earlier in the film to make us care about them. And the second half of the film is a long, tedious dungeon crawl which provides the actors with little opportunity to act or to establish their characters - like the Mines of Moria bit in The Fellowship of the Ring, except you don't care whether anyone gets out..

Perhaps because he was obliged to write an hour-long dungeon crawl, scriptwriter Philip Eisner doesn't seem to hold the project in very high regard, to be honest. After an opening narration by Ron Perlman to explain the whole ancient space machine thing and set up the context of the battle scene in which the seal is breached, there's another narration by Ron Perlman covering more or less exactly the same information. This suggests either a lack of faith in the audience's ability to follow what is going on, or a lack of faith in director Simon Hunter's ability to actually convey the facts he needs to convey in the opening scenes. Or perhaps he just hates writing this shit and considers the whole thing beneath him.

The limp script, unenthusiastic acting and sloppy direction come together in a few scenes to produce an overall effect that makes the movie actively unpleasant to watch. One of these is the scene in which the main characters are falling at high speed in an escape capsule from their destroyed steam airship and are actually arguing as to whether or not it's a good idea to deploy an emergency parachute. Yes, it's the backup parachute, and I think what they were arguing about is what altitude they should deploy it at to make sure it doesn't just snap off like the first parachute, but still. The scene is really fast, and everyone shouts at once, so our ability to actually follow what is going on is pretty much nil. I think it was meant to be tense and exciting, so the fact that it made me bored and irritated slightly more than the rest of the film had me bored and irritated is probably a bad sign. I'm not sure what sort of conclusions about any of the characters I was meant to come away with from this scene but it did make Mitch look like a complete moron, and an asshole with it: he's against pulling the chute until immediately before they hit the ground, and consequently the escape pod ends up crashing through a skyscraper at high speed, fatally impaling team leader Captain John McGuire (Steve Toussaint). He, incidentally, was the team's token black guy so there's a fairly clear example of the whole "black guy dies first" thing; it actually comes hot on the heels of airship captain Michaels (Pras) sacrificing his life in order operate the manual release on the escape pod, so if you want to see black men getting killed arbitrarily this is the movie for you.

Visually speaking the film really needed to be a feast for the eyes, but it doesn't manage it. It's got the same tendency towards depressingly monochromatic scenes that appears to have become fashionable since the Lord of the Rings movies came out, and whilst it does have pretty good CGI effects for an independent film, the actual look of the thing is a huge mess. The trench warfare segment at the beginning has a look that can be summed up as "World War I, only with more dakka", except designed by someone who has perhaps read half of a book about World War I - it even has a vaguely Anglo-American force being charged by a vaguely Germanic force, utilising huge artillery pieces that rather than being set up miles away and shooting shells up in the air to sail in a graceful arc to hit the enemy trenches have the guns pointing directly forwards and move right up to the Capitol fortifications to blast at them. Cut to the Brotherhood, who have this medieval look going on. Cut to Necromutant raids on human cities, which resemble the Blitz with zombies with everyone dressed in vaguely 1930s garb. Cut to Ron chatting with the corporate bigwigs, who also rock a vaguely medieval aesthetic.

It's all completely disjointed and there's no thought as to how all this fits together. You can take the medieval church and World War I and the Blitz and a heap of other influences and mix all the looks together - fuck, that's pretty much exactly what Warhammer 40,000 does - but you have to blend and fuse the different styles a little to make it work. Let's take the medieval corporate executives - yes, it works OK because the only scenes they appear in is when they are talking to Ron, and the Brotherhood also have medieval stylings to them, so it meshes, but it just doesn't make sense. Ron's people are an ancient secret society, the corporate executives run the corporations, and the corporate cities come from the 1930s and the corporate wars come from the 1910s, so there's this complete disconnect between what the executives wear and the architecture they enjoy and the chairs they sit in and the servants who tend to them and what everyone else is up to. Yes, of course the rich and the poor live very different lives in our world, but if the rich and powerful all adopted medieval fashions you'd expect some trickle-down as aspiring sorts tried to fit in with their betters and the culture as a whole was influenced by the tastes of its movers and shakers. When you see how utterly disconnected the different bits of the setting really are in terms of aesthetic, it stops seeming as though the different places and people you see belong to the same world as each other, which is a huge problem for science fiction and fantasy films which have to sell you on the time and the place they are showing you. I'm not looking for Tolkienesque worldbuilding here, but if the film can't ever make up its mind what its setting is supposed to be like then that's a major issue.

Mutant Chronicles is not even entertainingly, hilariously bad, like the first Dungeons & Dragons film - that at least had Bruce Payne trying to look threatening whilst wearing garish sky-blue lipstick. It's just completely dull and lifeless. I can't even bring myself to hate it, it has so little emotional impact; all I can say is that I don't see any reason anyone should make the effort to watch it if there is any other way they could possibly be spending their time.

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Comments (go to latest)
I've not even read this yet but right now I'm going to say well done (again) for writing a couple of thousand words on what is easily the shittest film I've seen ever. And that is saying something.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 01:35 on 2011-01-25
Oh, right, this thing.

I bought this because, well, I do love me some dieselpunk (which is what they're calling hyperbolic interwar styled SF these days), but this was just dull. They didn't even give Ron Perlman anything to do. (By the way, why do his characters never seem to survive to the end of the movie, despite the fact that he's usually way more interesting than everyone else in the film?)

I also like to believe that John Malkovich was dragged out of an after party and just thrown on set for this movie, and that he actually doesn't remember being in it. It would certainly explain his performance.

Also: wow, internet SF critic Martin Lewis commented on your review, Arthur!
Arthur B at 10:59 on 2011-01-25
Also: wow, internet SF critic Martin Lewis commented on your review, Arthur!

Oh wow, internet SF critic Alasdair commented on my article to point that out!

Oh wow! Internet SF critic Arthur is commenting on my article right now!

It's an infinite recursion of internet SF critics!

Seriously though, welcome to Ferretbrain Martin.
Robinson L at 15:00 on 2011-03-01
So, premise time: it's 2707, which the front of the box would have us believe is the 23rd Century but never mind.

Pay no attention to the off-screen temporal paradox!

Necromutants pour out and start killing soldiers, and soon enough you have a slightly more intelligent form of a zombie plague on the loose.

Had to ask: does this mean that the explanation for the zombie plague is slightly more intelligent than in most such stories, or that each individual zombie making up the plague is slightly more intelligent than the zombies in most such stories?
Arthur B at 15:47 on 2011-03-01
The zombies are slightly more intelligent; they're not operating on base instinct, they're being directed in their attacks by the machine and performing comparatively complex tasks on its behalf.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 20:33 on 2011-03-01
Hmm...that sort of reminds me of the Chimera from the Resistance games. Not really all that bright as individuals, but very useful as drone soldiers when directed by a higher intelligence.
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