Mutant Chronicles an oddity of a film.
In the most basic sense it is a simple plot: A rag tag squad is assembled to go to a place and blow up a thing to save the world from an apocalypse. It’s Mass Effect 2.
In the world of the film, megacorporations rules the world. This is considered somehow different than the real world. These megacorps have coalesced into nationstates who are locked in constant war with each other. During one of these wars, an ancient machine from space that crash landed on earth thousands of years ago is awakened, and from it hoards of mutated humans pour out to kill or transform the rest of the population. This machine needs to be destroyed by a squad.
That squad is lead by Major Hunter, played by the very solid Tom Jane, who is probably best known for starring in the 2004 version of The Punisher or The Mist (although more people should know him from 2003’s Stander. It’s a really good movie). Backing him up is Hellboy’s Ron Perlman, playing Brother Samuel. Perlman miraculously manages to get through 90% of the movie before somebody remembers to put him in monster makeup. Devon Aoki plays Cpl. Valerie Duval, and with the surreal quality of the backdrops throughout the film it is hard not to remember that she had been in Sin City not long before this role. Anna Walton plays the walking cliché of a silent badass melee girl. She is memorable for using swords she stole from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The rest of the squad all have their distinct visual styles, but their personalities, motivations, or precise skillsets become background noise.
A layer to keep in mind is that rather than a completely original setting, the film is an adaption of the classic Mutant Chronicles tabletop RPG and wargame franchise.
By using the existing franchise as a springboard, the film seems to aspire to present a larger world than just the story of the film. At the same time the tabletop setting is viewed through the lens of a film screenwriter, and is twisted and changed in major ways to support a focused action film story. The film’s narration and some throw away lines mention the corporate wars that rage globally, despite that aspect never being particularly important to the plot. The central plot of the film regarding the mysterious machine which transforms humans into mutants pulls from fluff in the RPG, but greatly changes and abridges it. In the RPG there is the force of the Dark Symmetry, which empowers the Dark Apostles who control the Dark Legion. Dark. In the tabletop the starting point of all of this is on the fictional tenth planet in the solar system, where humans accidentally unleashed the Dark Legions. In the film, the machine is on earth and human colonization of mars is theoretically a big factor since it where humans are evacuating to, but the inclusion of mars colonization feels out of place to the world of the film to the point where it is easy to put that detail out of mind. The film is relentlessly dieselpunk.
The dieselpunk aesthetic that the film brings to the table is a rarity, and in the moments when it gets it right the results are scenes that manage to burrow themselves deep into memory. On a relatively modest budget of $25,000,000 or about 1/6th the budget of the first Transformers movie, Mutant Chronicles endeavors to not just show off a dystopian corporate run world and the wars within, but also to actually show the audience the cataclysmic unleashing of mutant hoards. If paused at just the right frame, the film can look like a sober artistic accomplishment. The trench war battlefields of the opening sequence that are bathed in fog and rain can seem appropriately hellish in an unending war for corporate profit. Scenes of the mutants silhouetted against the sky as they drag victims to their underground fate have a haunting, mysterious quality.
But then some jarring visual will break the momentary spell. CGI blood that does not conform at all to the scene’s lighting and stays neon red seems to pop up in almost every scene of battle. Actors are often composited very obviously in front of greenscreens that have an unnatural flatness to the background, bringing to mind unflattering comparisons to some of the composite shots in Star Trek Enterprise.
After all of that, the question remains. Is it good? It is watchable, it is fun. The acting always holds up, and while some effects aren’t great the film is always moving at a brisk pace. It never gets bogged down in some seemingly unending piece of boring exposition. There is always a new set piece ahead to look forward to. Taken with a heaping tolerance for cliché, this is a great film to pop on for the right sort of crowd to have fun watching and cheering on the heroes who may as well be members of a pen and paper RPG campaign brought to life.
By the end of the movie, the heroes have done all the hero things. Fought each other, bonded, been tested, and made heroic sacrifices. What more can we ask of a mid budget action movie?