I recently came to possess a DVD of the new sci-fi movie Mutant Chronicles. The details of the acquisition are irrelevant, though suffice it to say that alcohol was involved. That’s my excuse for paying money for this thing.
Now, I have watched this film, and have come here to warn the rest of you. Do not attempt to view Mutant Chronicles. It will hurt you, especially if you have any affection for the original property.
Indeed, the original property is most nifty. The reason, see, that I am reviewing this on my gaming blog is that Mutant Chronicles is originally a Swedish roleplaying game, from Target Games. It spawned a miniatures strategy game, WarZone, and a collectible card game, Doomtrooper. The latter was one of the first CCGs to be translated into Finnish, and at the tender age of ten, I spent most of my meagre allowance on booster packs. I still have a crapload of Doomtrooper cards in a box, somewhere.
So, I have fond memories of Mutant Chronicles. Also, it’s inspired by Warhammer 40,000, which I absolutely adore. The main difference is that Mutant Chronicles is more humanocentric. There are no space elves or orcs. The central conflict is between five human corporations, the religious Brotherhood, and the Dark Legion, which is a stand-in for Chaos. The corporations are the American Capitol, the British Imperial, the Japanese Mishima, the Franco-Germanic Bauhaus and the sci-fi Cybertronic.
The Review Itself
Incidentally, from this point on, there are SPOILERS. While you actually do not want to see this movie unless you have masochistic tendencies or a crush on Ron Perlman, and can likely puzzle out the entire plot fifteen minutes into the film, I thought it’d be polite to warn you.
The movie retains some of that. However, while the corporations have already left Earth and are busy fighting over the solar system, they’re still fighting over Earth in the film and are only evacuating to Mars when a battle between Capitol and Bauhaus forces awakens a mutant-making Machine deep beneath the earth and all of the land is consumed by mutant zombies in the space of about three weeks. The rest of the movie, then, is about a team of hand-picked badasses going down into the ground to shut the Machine down with an ancient bomb they may or may not know how to use. The badasses include Thomas Jane and Ron Perlman, who, along with an underutilised John Malkovich, are the only people in the production who can act worth a damn. We’ve also got the token black, Asian and Latino characters.
Nobody has any real personality and the characters die off one by one, as the mission progresses. The script is painfully predictable, even when it goes off the rails and stops even pretending to make sense at about the halfway point. See, at the beginning, in the trenches, there’s Sgt. Mitch Hunter (Thomas Jane) and Captain Nate Rooker (Sean Pertwee). They fight the Bauhaus and then they fight the zombies. Rooker, at one point, asks Hunter to “take care of the girls” if he doesn’t make it back. At this point, we know he won’t make it back.
And then, when he stays at a heavy machine gun to fight a completely superfluous rearguard action so that Hunter and the last redshirt of the platoon can get away, nobody is surprised. He is then last seen being dragged away by a mutant zombie on a meat hook, still alive. We see that he’s still alive, and we know he’ll be coming back, most likely as a mutant zombie.
But no! As the crack team of cardboard cutouts descends into the bowels of the earth, weeks later, they find some mutie zombie still dragging the still-alive Rooker towards the Machine to be transformed into a mutant zombie. Hunter first rescues and then euthanizes him. Come on, now. The man’s survived being dragged on a meat hook through his chest for three fucking weeks, he can still keep going.
The fact Rooker doesn’t come back as a zombie but as a live person is the only thing in the film that can be said to be surprising. Every other twist can be seen coming a mile away.
Until the mission gets underway about a third into the mercifully-short film, very little actually happens. Hunter mopes around, we are introduced to a bunch of characters we can’t care about, John Malkovich has the lamest last words ever, Ron Perlman gnaws upon the tasty scenery, and we are told that the mutants are nearly impervious to bullets and the best way to kill them is by inflicting massive tissue damage, or with swords. Then, things start to happen, and I longed for the boring bits where nothing happened, because they were invariably superior. The director (also named Hunter, ironically – the character of Mitch Hunter is from the game so we know it’s not a self-insertion, mercifully) can’t direct action scenes worth shit. The choreography is poor and it shows, even with the shaky camera.
Actually, the crowning moment of the film comes soon after they’ve entered the necropolis where the Machine is supposed to be. They start rappelling down an elevator shaft to get into the depths and leave the token Asian, Juba, to guard the rear, hiding in the elevator cabin. The guys get down and are attacked by zombies, and so is Juba. He fights a losing battle, and finally ends up duelling a mutant zombie in the free-falling elevator. During the fight, he cuts off the mutant’s own meat hook hand and then stabs it through the face with it, nailing it into the wall. Then the elevator hits the ground and explodes, killing all the other mutants the rest of the team were fighting. The camera is shaky and the direction is poor, but the idea is good, the concept is cool, and they almost manage to pull it off.
Strangely enough, all of the ethnic token characters explode upon death.
Also, the CGI is atrociously bad. The film’s opening scene shows a yellow sun with clouds passing over it that reminded me of the CGI in Babylon 5, which first aired fifteen years ago. Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning had better CGI, and that was made by a guy in his mom’s kitchen.
In the end, it’s still better than Uwe Boll. It’s better than Dungeons & Dragons. It has a few one-liners that actually work (“I’m not paid to believe. I’m paid to fuck shit up.” or, when the monk, Brother Samuel (Perlman) reads an ancient inscription on a wall in the catacombs: “Abandon ye all hope who enter here… motherfuckers.”), and some good concepts that could theoretically have been made to work. For the most part, it is not actively bad. However, it has no soul and no atmosphere, and thus Dungeons & Dragons 2 is still better, even though the acting in that one was uniformly dire.
Coming Soon to a Blog Near You
I was actually planning to start a feature on this blog, called “The Silver DM Screen”, about movies I watch and how aspects of them could be made to work in RPGs. It was my intention to see if this, a movie based on an RPG, could offer something.
It really couldn’t.
My advice: get Mutant Chronicles and play that. If you can’t find it, get Dark Heresy, it’s almost the same. Actually, skip Mutant Chronicles, it’s practically impossible to find nowadays anyway, and just get Dark Heresy. Dark Heresy rocks.
Also, if you do find yourself watching this movie and cannot escape or commit suicide or something, make note of where and how the plot really fails to work. Predictable clichés fail in RPGs in exactly the same places, and they’re often more fragile because a game moves slower and the players have more time to think about it. I could tell stories of entire plots being pieced out by genre-savvy players.
Never, by the way, steal a whole plot, especially if parts of it can be bypassed, such as in most investigation adventures. Sampo, our former Living Greyhawk triad man, told me of a module that he’d played at a convention somewhere in Europe. It was a murder mystery of some sort, and the group was stuck, until he realised that the plot was identical with the Babylon 5 episode “Passing through Gethsemane”, which in turn meant that the murderer is this guy… and lo and behold, it was.
Yeah. Let’s see if I can find something better to watch for next time.