The dubious Zack Snyder/Frank Miller school of synthetically created action cinema continues with "The Mutant Chronicles," an especially cold, inhuman and humorless guys-and-gals-on-a-mission variant. Proof positive that shooting actors in front of green screens ensures mechanical results, this is one sci-fi project -- over a decade in gestation -- that should have been left as the role-playing board game with which it originated. While Magnolia's genre-savvy Magnet shingle could eke out some mild coin in Stateside theatrical, this looks to be a homevid and VOD writeoff.
Pic is in trouble from its lugubriously narrated and written (by screenwriter Philip Eisner) opening, explaining how awful the world has become in the future, due in no small part to "the Machine," buried deep in the Earth's surface by aliens, and sealed supposedly forever by warrior tribes. The Machine was created to change humans into mutants (reason: unknown); though it's been sealed away, a religious order of monks has chronicled its history, just in case things go awry in the future.
That moment arrives during a battle in the Middle East between armies representing two of four corporations that rule the planet -- Capitol (based in the Western Hemisphere) and Bauhaus (repping a German-speaking Europe). Without an Arab in sight, and waging trench warfare in a replay of WWI, the armies toss shells at each other and manage to bust open the Machine's seal. Out stalks a bloodthirsty, ultra-violent mutant army that's seemingly been ready for action for centuries.
Capitol's Major Hunter (Thomas Jane, looking buff) is witness to it all, even as he's unable to rescue his comrade Rooker (Sean Pertwee) from approaching mutants. With the pasty-faced, hairless creatures chopping heads and gutting stomachs every which way, a governing council led by Constantine (John Malkovich, onscreen for nine minutes) pushes for a mass evacuation of the planet. The leader of the monks, Brother Samuel (Ron Perlman, also narrating), argues for resistance.
"Have faith," urges Brother Samuel, but the characters -- like atheist and hero Hunter -- are forgiven if they remain skeptical. Samuel assembles a small force of kick-ass, perfectly ethnically balanced warriors, including Hunter, Duval (Devon Aoki), El Jesus (Luis Echegaray), Steiner (Benno Furmann) and silent swordswoman Severian (Anna Walton), to descend to the Machine and -- what else? -- blow it up.
Eisner and director Simon Hunter clearly are itchy with exposition, and they aren't much more comfortable with dialogue. Conceived under the aesthetic guise of "Steampunk," a decade-old style that imagines the future as an H.G. Wells-like universe powered by steam and coal, everything in "Mutant Chronicles" was designed digitally, compelling the cast to act without real backdrops. A soulless, emotionless tone is almost unavoidable under the circumstances, made colder by a striking lack of humor.
Director Hunter fails to elicit any excitement or surprises from his actors, which is right in line with generally unimaginative action setpieces and lumpy pacing. (An exception, in which our hero Hunter is nearly turned into a mutant, is a damn fine two minutes' worth of tension and terror.) Jane and Perlman do all they can do, but it's hard to fight this filmmaking Machine.
The synthetic impression is hammered home by pic's hyper-digital look, with lenser Geoff Boyle shooting with a Viper digital camera and hard-disk recorder for uncompressed images. Result is excessively high-def, and actually makes the plentiful visual effects look fake. A la Miller's movies, colors are muted almost to black-and-white, with splashes of strong colors (usually red, which is spilled aplenty). Caroline Greville-Morris' Steampunk production design is, in the end, the only reason to keep watching.