Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn’t impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there’s I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward and a good time.
Cultural infamy: Die-hard John Malkovich fans and a certain type of role-player might have been aware of Mutant Chronicles when it snuck into a couple of “selected theaters” in April 2009. (Total domestic box-office take per Box Office Mojo: $6,820.) But it likely slipped past most people until the trailer turned up on YouTube and briefly became one of those buzzed-about phenomena along the lines of Mega Shark Vs. Giant Octopus—or for that matter, the fake Green Lantern or Thundercats spots. “Is this a real movie, or another fan-made spoof stitched together out of pieces of other movies?” was a fairly common reaction. But it was a real film, scripted by Philip Eisner (Event Horizon), helmed by commercials director Simon Hunter, and starring Malkovich, Ron Perlman, and Thomas Jane. It just looked like a joke at the expense of bad-movie fans. Or at the expense of fans of the tabletop role-playing game that loosely inspired it.
Curiosity factor: And yet there’s that trailer. Some movie trailers prompt the reactions “With a cast like that, it has to be good, right?” Almost-direct-to-DVD curiosities like Mutant Chronicles are more likely to make people think “With a cast like that, if it was any good at all, I would have heard of it already, right?”
But there’s also a certain amount of “How bad could it be?” In the trailer alone, there’s a horde of zombie-ish mutants, trench-fighting World War I-era doughboys, spaceships, sword-fighting, a hint of martial-arts action, and a steady series of explosions. It suggests someone made a film out of a story generated by a hyperactive boy playing with all his action figures at once, throwing a mishmash of fantasy, kung-fu, army, and science-fiction toys into the mix. And then there’s Malkovich, looking like an angry, weary cleric, and Perlman wearing a monk’s robe and yelling and pounding on a table, and Punisher/The Mist/Dreamcatcher action-cheeseball Thomas Jane, well, being Thomas Jane. Each of those stars suggests a different kind of movie, which underlines the curiosity factor for anyone going in: It’s pretty obvious that Mutant Chronicles is going to be bad. But isn’t it possible that it’s bad in that totally awesome kind of way? If not, which form of bad did it choose?
The viewing experience: Unfortunately, it chose boring-bad. Mutant Chronicles is a standard cast-attrition thriller in which a bunch of essentially personality-free ablative testosterone-happy elites go deep underground to blow up a giant, ancient machine that’s turning people into terrifying killer zombie-things. True to the tradition of such films, the protagonists [uh, spoiler?] largely get killed along the way, sometimes heroically and sometimes just pointlessly. The characterization comes by way of glowering and occasionally yelling, but mostly, we don’t learn anything more about them than we get in this ridiculous introduction to the team, which sums up just how interchangeable and disposable they all are:
Here’s slightly more background, by way of the opening narration: “At the end of the Ice Age, the machine came. It came from outside. It came from space. It came with one purpose: to change man into mutant.” There was a big man-on-mutant war, but eventually the “tribes of man” united under a fabled warrior to seal it deep underground. The warrior’s descendents formed a monkish sort of organization called The Brotherhood and kept the history of the machine alive “in stories, in myths, in the sacred book of the Chronicles.” Millennia later, the world (clearly Earth, from the map) is run by four mega-corporations, called Capitol, Mishima, Imperial, and, er, Bauhaus. They’re all engaged in endless war against each other, which is how the mutant-making machine is eventually exposed again: through ill-considered, excessive use of heavy ordnance out in the field. Then stabby-armed mutants come out of the ground and start killing everyone on Earth, largely by poking bloody holes in them in a nigh-endless sequence of gory slaughter.
All this is largely accomplished through actors operating in front of the kind of elaborate CGI-created, shiny but severely undersaturated backdrops seen in Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow and Repo: The Genetic Opera. Some of the vistas and environments are huge, elaborate, and impressive, but they all look like videogame settings. The CGI splashes of vivid blood are equally videogamey. So are the grunting, growling heroes, few of whom ever do get much characterization beyond “single mother with 61 kills” and “officer and aristocrat.” Oh wait, no, they do have one brief moment of ugly, ugly banter on the way to blow up the machine, when Single Mother With 61 Kills asks Guy Who Laughed When Told It Was A Suicide Mission what he did with the tickets off-world that he got for agreeing to go on the mission. Dig the sweet, sweet bonding:
Thomas Jane strides through the bloody action with a facial expression that suggests “Yeah, yeah. When do I get my paycheck?” His inflexible grimness made him an action star, but one of the primary problems with Mutant Chronicles is that his grimness extends to every aspect of the movie. The tone isn’t exciting or propulsive, it’s exhausted, hopeless, and humorless. Practically every exchange goes something like this one, when Brotherhood monk Ron Perlman attempts to recruit Jane for the mission to blow up the mutant-machine: “It’s a chance. A chance to save mankind. A chance to save the world. Maybe the last chance.” “Well, fuck mankind. Fuck the world. Fuck you.” “…yeah.”
Not every action movie needs to be funny, but action movies like this one all carry a faint hint of ridiculousness, and they’re generally better off when they smooth their own paths with a little tinge of self-awareness, even if only in the form of a few wry wisecracks. Instead, Mutant Chronicles is unrelenting and ungiving, to the point where no one in it seems particularly human. Jane’s “Fuck the world” stands as the film’s overall attitude, the idea that being macho somehow means being as mindlessly hateful and endlessly aggressive as possible. Maybe the creators felt that was par for the course in a war film—this is essentially yet another riff on The Dirty Dozen—but it’s hard to root for one-dimensional characters who are only around to curse, shoot things, and eventually die messily. It’s also hard to root for the salvation of a world this hopelessly ugly, both visually and emotionally. The only people who engender any real sympathy are the victims, who naturally tend to die, making the story seem even more exhaustingly nihilistic. For instance, there’s this scene, where a mother and child try to escape the mutant-overrun earth, to no avail:
Jane isn’t entirely emotionless, of course. He’s a cranky asshole with a secret heart of gold. At several points during the movie, he proves he has feelings under his painted-on exterior scowl by risking his life to save friends or even strangers, even when his own angry teammates repeatedly threaten to murder him for pausing in their mission. But even when he’s going out on a limb for someone else, his expression and attitude never change. There’s no flexibility in him, just as there’s no flexibility in the movie—it’s exactly the same droning emotional beat from beginning to end.
Besides which, very little about Mutant Chronicles’ story makes any sense. For instance, the Brotherhood’s big plan to save the world involves sending Jane and his non-howling commandos down into the machine to blow it up… by taking in a piece of the mutant-making machine that was extracted before it was buried. Back in Ice Age times. Also, the Brotherhood isn’t actually sure the piece is a bomb. And it’s meant to be activated with a mechanical key, which the Brotherhood doesn’t have. But they think it’s probably in the machine somewhere, so the commandos just have to find it, and then use it to activate the device, which might possibly still work even after so many millennia. What could possibly go wrong with a plan this well thought-out? Besides, y’know, every single ill-considered step along the way? Why rely on an ancient device that’s only maybe a bomb and only maybe still works and is definitely missing an important component? What’s wrong with the traditional solution of a big backpack full of C4, or its science-fiction-fantasy-martial-arts-army-epic equivalent?
Even before the mutant-machine plot rears its dripping head, Mutant Chronicles establishes a setting of world-weary apathy. Fighting in the trenches of one of those inter-company wars, Thomas Jane and fellow officer Sean Pertwee (son of former Doctor Who Jon Pertwee) bitch about living in a world ruled by endless, meaningless wars “where they give cash bonuses to officers based on body count.” They’re tired and miserable and they already have little reason to go on with life. When the mutant thing happens and Perlman and Malkovich (who seems to be some sort of politico rather than a cleric, though the situation is pretty unclear) discuss what’s to be done about it, Malkovich seems too exhausted to even move his head, let alone get out of his chair. I would love to know what the hell kind of direction he was given in this scene: He plays his character as though he’s paralyzed from the eyebrows down, and subsequently only a few seconds away from choking to death on his own saliva:
He moves and talks normally in his only other scene, so if he was actually meant to be playing a paralytic, someone forgot about that entirely after this sequence was shot. Perlman’s brogue is also pretty erratic, as he leads the characters off to the machine and down into its bowels. And once that project gets started, it proceeds exactly as anyone who’s seen this kind of movie would expect. Mutants attack. Barriers are discovered, then overcome. Uninteresting protagonists die. Big musical stings and sudden lunging monsters attempt to startle the audience. Maybe it’s a surprise when Jane ends up stuck on a mutant-making conveyor-belt device that’s uncomfortably (okay, and kind of unintentionally comically) reminiscent of the one in Ice Pirates, but mostly, Mutant Chronicles consists of a bunch of halfhearted nonsensical setup followed by a slow, draggy, entirely predictable series of action sequences. Steampunk fans may enjoy the several minutes it takes for a piston-driven flying vehicle to get up a head of steam and start flying, and gore fans may enjoy the endless sequences where mutants gut everyone they can reach, but camp fans aren’t going to find much satisfying among entirely straight-faced, entirely nuance-free lines like “Shit, here come those motherfuckers!” and conversations like “There is no alcohol here.” “You tellin’ me God don’t drink?” “That’s for communion.” “This is communion.”
Really, this exchange sums up Mutant Chronicles neatly: “Any last words?” “Shut the fuck up!”
How much of the experience wasn’t a total waste of time? Maybe 5 percent. The elaborately realized setting is often nifty to look at, Malkovich’s brief scenes are overplayed enough to be vaguely fun, and Perlman is admirably devoted to his noble-cleric role, if not necessarily to his accent. But mostly, this is a tiresome slog through cheap gore and cheaper misanthropy, constructed for people who’d rather passively watch a so-so horror videogame than play one.