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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Mutant Chronicles (Blu-ray)
Mutant Chronicles (Blu-ray)
Magnolia Home Entertainment // R // August 4, 2009 // Region A
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted August 7, 2009 | E-mail the Author
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"What do you believe in?"
"I'm not paid to believe: I'm paid to fuck shit up. You comin'?"


This isn't the review of Mutant Chronicles I'd really prefer to be writing. This indescribably ambitious and fiercely independent action/sci-fi flick melds steampunk, a thick religious streak, and post-apocalyptic
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Paths of Glory-meets-The Dirty Dozen-meets-28 Days Later. Produced wholly outside the studio system, Mutant Chronicles largely shrugs off CGI, instead fleshing out its bleak view of an alternate future with matte paintings and elaborate, hand-crafted miniatures. On paper, at least, it sounds incredible -- certainly unlike most anything else being churned out these days -- but disappointingly, the execution's much too badly fumbled for Mutant Chronicles to be worth seeking out.

Based loosely on the pen-and-paper RPG, Mutant Chronicles is set in a far-flung future where four sprawling corporations reign over what's left of the planet. These corporations have been warring for untold centuries over Earth's dwindling natural resources, seemingly only interested in each individual victory in as much as it bumps up their stock price. This clearly isn't a particularly romantic vision of the future; corporate soldiers huddle in WWI-style trenches with their steam-powered arsenals, risking what passes for a life to collect a paycheck and a stab at a bonus. It's during one of these skirmishes that an ancient seal is ruptured, and an alien machine that collects kidnapped humans and transforms them into bloodthirsty mutants is reactivated once again. These creatures flood out of the crater, hacking apart everyone and everything in their path. Survivors in the cities seek out some sort of sanctuary offworld, but these steam-powered spacecraft can only carry so many, and those with the means are begging, borrowing, and stealing to score the treasured boarding passes (think the letters of transit from Casablanca).

Brother Samuel (Ron Perlman) has faith, though. The ancient texts of the Chronicles offer guidance as to how The Machine can be destroyed, and with seemingly nothing to lose, religious leader Constantine (John Malkovich) lends him one of his ships and whatever meager resources remain. Using a stack of passes offworld as bait, Samuel selects a handful of soldiers across the four corporations to mount a suicide mission: one last ditch effort to salvage the smoldering remains of the planet.

As much
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as I respect and admire its ambition, not much of anything about Mutant Chronicles really works. Director Simon Hunter describes its visual aesthetic as "impressionistic" -- he says he's not aiming for realism -- but it's hard to feel immersed in a world where the cast is overlaid on top of exaggerated backgrounds as if they're Colorforms. The live-action actors are so far removed from the imagery around them that it's distracting...I was constantly reminded that I'm watching a movie and was never given a chance to fully escape into its story. The fabrication and inspired designs of the models are terrific, but they never blend in convincingly with the rest of the film, and having so little to physically interact with on the set may have made it more difficult for the cast to settle into their characters.

Mutant Chronicles has assembled a name cast, but an awful lot of the line readings are still embarrassingly wooden and stilted. It doesn't help that they're saddled with such clunky dialogue, from the weak stabs at characterization to the faux-edgy one-liners about fuckin' bitches and get-out-of-hell-free cards. Ron Perlman clawing at an Irish brogue that comes and goes really isn't an overly stellar idea. Thomas Jane had already taken the reins as The Punisher a few years earlier, so he ought to know a thing or two about hand-to-hand combat, but one early, low-energy brawl with him is just...cringeworthy. Sean Pertwee as a gruff military man and sword-slinging monkette Anna Walton are about the only members of the cast who emerge unscathed; everyone else falls somewhere between mediocre and dismal. If you can watch Mutant Chronicles' dying captain lob out one final salute before jettisoning an escape pod and not howl with laughter, you're a better man than I. In the end, neither its slew of characters nor its story are the least bit engaging.

Sitting
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through Mutant Chronicles is kind of like peering over someone else's shoulder as he tears through a round of Gears of War. The overly artificial look of this world does seem as if it could've been nicked from a video game, and even though the movie is teeming with a hell of a lot of action, I never really felt as if I had any investment in anything that's going on. It's so much like a game, even, that the last level...I mean, the climax...has a rotating fire platform, jumping puzzles, and, of course, a final boss.

If Mutant Chronicles is a video game, it's a pretty damned brutal one. The mutants are all but unstoppable, requiring that entire clips be emptied into them or being skewered by a sword for one to fall. Impalings, dismemberments, poor bastards being carved in half, bullet-riddled corpses sopping with blood...this is a movie that earns its R rating and then some. The look of the mutants is disturbing and effective: the sickly texture of their skin, their crimson eyes, and the fleshy, serrated blade that grows in the place of an arm. The downside, though, is that the CG blood spatter is so cartoonish that it looks like someone opened up each frame of Mutant Chronicles in MS Paint, half-assedly scribbled some red on there, and mashed 'Save'. Even in one of the extras, superfan Thomas Jane -- in between fawning over the flick -- says something after an early screening about how he thinks the blood is going to be fixed, but...no, apparently it wasn't. Despite the sheer volume of action, the pace really drags, even in this director's cut that's somewhere around ten minutes slimmer than the theatrical release. This 100 minute movie feels as if it's plodding along for two and a half hours at the very least.

Mutant Chronicles' ambitions far outstrip its budget, and the creaky screenplay brings out the worst in its cast and really should've been chucked out in favor of a page one rewrite. The movie's either hyperkinetic, blood-spattered action or mournful, meandering stretches of tepid dialogue, and even in this sleeker cut, it still drags along interminably. It kind of goes without saying that I wouldn't recommend shelling out thirty bucks to grab Mutant Chronicles sight-unseen, but for those of you who do dig the movie, Magnolia/Magnet has lavished it with a pretty thoroughly impressive release on Blu-ray. Me, though...? As much as I want to like Mutant Chronicles, it's so badly botched that I'd have to say Skip It.


Video
Mutant Chronicles looks about as flawless as it realistically can on Blu-ray. Even though the individual elements are rarely composited together all that deftly, the levels of detail and clarity are still often startling. It's uneven -- the image tends to look murky under low light, and a few scattered shots are unusually soft -- but Mutant Chronicles is thoroughly impressive at its best, and even its weaker moments aren't any worse than expected given the unconventional nature of the shoot. The bleak, desaturated palette suits the somber tone of its story, and it helps to emphasize the splashes of crimson in the clerics' cloaks and spatters of blood. Some patches of red do come across as noisy and unstable, and perhaps that's a side effect of the filmlike texture that's been infused after the fact into this digital production. There's also some infrequent banding but hardly enough to distract. Especially given its colossal scope and meager budget, Mutant Chronicles looks considerably better than expected on Blu-ray, and admirers of the movie ought to find this disc more than worth the extra few dollars over the DVD release.
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Audio
Mutant Chronicles' 24-bit, six-channel DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is even more outstanding, boasting a colossal sound design that successfully matches the daunting scale and scope of such an ambitious movie. This is a particularly immersive mix: ravaged buildings, crumbling caves, the metallic clink of spent shells from every direction, and the swarms of feral, inhuman creatures that've caught the scent of blood. There's an enormous heft to the lower frequencies, from the thunderous cannonfire to the creaking of the titanic steampunk hardware to the sheer enormity of its strings of explosions. There are a few scattered stretches where it's deliberately overwhelmed, but otherwise, the movie's dialogue is balanced effectively in the mix as well. Although I did find myself turning up the audio a few ticks higher than usual, virtually everything about Mutant Chronicles sounds phenomenal after that slight adjustment, and this is another very strong outing on Blu-ray by Magnolia/Magnet.

Minus the audio commentary, there aren't any alternate soundtracks on this disc, although subtitles are served up in English (SDH) and Spanish.


Extras
  • Audio Commentary: Though
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    it's easily overlooked being hidden under the 'Setup' menu, Mutant Chronicles does indeed feature a commentary track. Director Simon Hunter and star Ron Perlman step in front of the mic this time around, and even though I can't say that I thought all that much of the movie, I really enjoyed giving its commentary a spin just the same. Hunter takes care to speak more about the construction of the story rather then merely narrating what's unfolding on-screen, and he offers very detailed technical notes shot-by-shot about how his vision of this post-apocalyptic alternate future was fleshed out. Among the highlights are noting how this director's cut of Mutant Chronicles has been slimmed down from what had originally made the rounds in theaters, differentiating its fatalistic bent from the chest-thumping of most sci-fi/action flicks, Hunter taking the reins as camera operator as well as director, just how meticulously planned and fragmented the shoot itself was, and touching on the divisive nature of the movie. Even though I'm not the least bit keen on Mutant Chronicles as a film, its commentary really is worth setting aside a couple of hours to give a listen.

  • The Making of Mutant Chronicles: A Documentary (1 hr., 47 min.; SD): This feature-length documentary on the making of Mutant Chronicles runs longer than the film itself. It really is an exceptional effort: as startlingly thorough as its runtime would suggest yet so candid and playful that its pacing just breezes along; it's a two hour documentary but feels as if it's maybe half that.

    The documentary is divided into five distinct chunks. First up is pre-production: a peek at the make-up and prosthetics, fight choreography, storyboarding, cast readthroughs, and camera tests. This is followed by segments documenting production at Shepperton Studios as well as the Isle of Man, and between the two, virtually every key sequence in the film is highlighted. There's an enormous amount of behind-the-scenes footage, of course, and it chats up the cast and crew between takes, shows off the room where the extras are corralled, takes a look at the mutants working out some of their brawls, and picks up on candid bits like the cast dozing off and the clerics unwinding with a round of soccerfootball. After principal photography wraps up, the documentary lugs its cameras over to the studio where the miniature work is being fielded. A slew of models are highlighted in great detail, and perhaps my favorite part of this documentary was seeing them torn apart while being photographed by a bleeding-edge digital camera at 2,000 frames per second. Last to bat is post-production: compositing, CG rendering, editing, writing and recording the orchestral score, color timing, and hammering out the sound design and final mix. It's noted that there are 1,720 effects shots in the final film -- and this includes dramatically (and very effectively) reshaping the ending without needing cameras to roll again -- and for whatever reason, we get to catch a peek at Thomas Jane half-naked in the ADR booth. The documentary ends with a thoroughly relieved Hunter delivering the finished product literally hours before the deadline to catch some tax breaks from the British government.

    This is a truly remarkable effort by director Andrew Mackay, whose turn as a monk in Mutant Chronicles is also documented here at length. "The Making of Mutant Chronicles" casts a sprawling and informative net, and consistently entertaining from the first frame to the last, it's essential viewing for anyone picking up this Blu-ray disc.

  • Interviews with the Cast and Crew (26 min.; SD): Virtually
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    all of the key cast and crew are interviewed on the set, and their comments here swirl around the some 1,700 visual effects shots throughout Mutant Chronicles, the steampunk imagery, how this adaptation ties into the original RPG, and the physical and mental challenges of this unconventional style of production. These interviews were shot in part with a promotional bent in mind, so there is a lot of recapping of the plot and lingering on routine character details, but more is revealed after those obligations are out of the way. I particularly enjoyed hearing John Malkovich's snarky jab at American film crews after noting what a delight it was to work with these Brits.

  • Deleted Scenes (8 min.; SD): These six brief additional scenes include more chatter between the cast after a lift collapses, Mitch delivering the news of one soldier's death to his widow, and the church turning to a parade of corporate boards about the prophecy foretold in the Chronicles. There's nothing particularly revelatory in here, although it does show what Mitch did with his passes offworld, a question that remains unanswered in the movie proper.

  • Promotional Teaser / Making-of (10 min.; SD): The original seven minute teaser that Simon Hunter produced as a proof-of-concept has been provided, showcasing an assault mounted on the warring humans by a wave of mutants, again set against the backdrop of a World War I-style trench. The approach the final film would later take is fairly well-formed here, although the teaser has an odd obsession with flowers that didn't make it into the feature-length version. Hunter offers optional commentary over the teaser as well and delights in pointing out some of the visual tricks used to help bring it to life.

    A three minute making-of featurette has been tossed on as well, documenting the four day shoot and the five months of post-production (!) that followed. Despite its short length, this featurette is still rather thorough, following the sketching of storyboards, peeking in on pre-production meetings, showing off the makeup and prosthetic effects, and offering a look at the shoot itself as well as the many months of effort afterwards.

  • Comic-Con Panel Q&A (12 min.; SD): The bulk of the key cast and crew step in front of the microphone for a Q&A from an early screening at the San Diego Comic-Con. Legendary producer Edward Pressman speaks about just how long this fiercely independent project took to come to fruition, Simon Hunter delves into how the look of the film was shaped, and the cast gushes endlessly about how wonderful an experience it was. There's not much here that isn't addressed in the disc's other extras, though.

  • HDNet: A Look at Mutant Chronicles (5 min.; HD): Opening with a high definition introduction by director Simon Hunter, this promotional featurette is really aimed more at those who haven't already given Mutant Chronicles a spin. It largely recaps the premise, lobs out some of the same interview snippets featured elsewhere on this disc, and briefly touches on the unique approach to its production.

  • Visual Effects Comparisons (17 min.; SD): There are two VFX comparisons on this Blu-ray disc, the first of which shows different stages of the effects work and pieces the final product together layer by layer. A second montage features excerpts from three sequences that are shown in storyboard form, a second time with the cast acting against a huge green backdrop, and the final composited footage.

  • Still Galleries: Two still
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    galleries have also been piled onto this disc. The first is a set of fifty pieces of conceptual art: the transformation of man into mutant as well as several different takes on the fully-formed creatures, battlegrounds, steampunk hardware, weaponry, and even different versions of the logo. The second gallery compiles an enormous set of 94 storyboards from the film's climax. This is the closest look this Blu-ray disc offers at the more optimistic ending that was originally filmed before being transformed dramatically in post-production.

    Although the menus on which these images are presented are in HD, the artwork itself takes up so little real estate that I didn't think it was worth labeling either of these galleries as high-def extras.

  • Webisodes (18 min.; SD): Twelve webisodes largely pieced together from clips from the film and interviews elsewhere on the disc have also been included. If you've dug into the rest of the extras already, there's not much here that's particularly revealing.

  • BD Live: Mutant Chronicles is a BD Live-enabled disc, but last I checked, the switch had yet to be flipped on. There's no indication on the packaging that there's anything in particular waiting in the wings.

  • Trailers (11 min.; HD): Rounding out the extras are several high definition trailers and promos, including one for Mutant Chronicles.

The Final Word
Mutant Chronicles has ambition to spare and the underpinnings of a compelling premise, but...yeah, not much else. I found the movie much too tedious and uninvolving to even recommend as so much as a Redbox rental, but those scattered few who'd caught Mutant Chronicles beforehand and were impressed ought to find this Blu-ray disc worth picking up. It's a first-rate release, really, boasting a robust visual and aural presentation alongside quite a few hours of extras. It's just too bad about the movie; I really do wish I could give Mutant Chronicles a more enthusiastic nod, but disappointingly, it's a complete misfire. Skip It.
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