It's tempting to bemoan the decline of the B movie, those precious, unpretentious non-gems that litter the inseams and outskirts of moviedom. From their namesake on the far side of early cinema's double features to their glory days shaping the course of genre and exploitation film, the small budgets—and smaller ambitions—of B movies have always played a key cultural role in giving us cheap thrills. They also lowered our standards for entertainment. But now we have digital cable and YouTube for that. What's a second-rate flick to do?
As anyone who goes to the movies in the early months of the year knows, though, the B movie hasn't disappeared—it just started dressing a little snappier. The 1990s saw a host of changes to the movie industry (rising average budgets, new media marketing savvy, the rise of the indie film) that rendered the B movie functionally obsolete; after all, why not blur the lines a little? Why not make every flick a little slicker, and every weekend an event?
Cut to April 2009: Fast & Furious, the third B-movie sequel to a 2001 B movie with practically the same title, makes $72.5 million dollars on its opening weekend. The B movie is dead; long live the B movie.
It's kind of refreshing, then, to lay eyes on a low-budget dinosaur like Simon Hunter's The Mutant Chronicles, finally out in theaters after bouncing around Europe for a year and making its U.S. premiere in March via prestigious media outlets like Comcast OnDemand and XBOX Live. The scenario, based on an also-ran role-playing game (the six-dudes-in-a-basement kind, not the one-dude-with-a-Playstation kind), is the height of genre silliness: It's the 26th century, and Earth's dwindling resources are being fought over by the four corporations that constitute our planet's sole ruling bodies. During a skirmish in Poland, two warring forces unwittingly break an ancient seal on a dormant cave full of pissed-off, claw-limbed "Necromutants," who take over the whole world, killing those who resist and violently assimilating the rest.
As a lucky minority flee the planet— we colonized the solar system, I guess—the head of a mysterious, mutant-savvy monastic order (Ron Perlman) recruits an intercorporate force of military elites, including hero-by-default Thomas Jane, to follow him into the cave and blow up their Necromutant assembly line. Ultraviolence ensues.
If you made it past the title The Mutant Chronicles in the first place, it's likely you're still pretty stoked, and at first the film doesn't disappoint. Hunter tackles the far-out mythology and steampunk/World War I-style imagery with an admirable balance of earnestness and stoic camp, setting the scene for a story worth telling. The visceral opening battle radiates hopelessness even before the Necromutants swarm up from their hole, and we are given some intriguing looks at a dark future as Perlman makes his way to the united corporations' leader (a super-slumming John Malkovich) to propose his suicide mission.
The visuals borrow liberally from more credible works, and the prominent effects only occasionally fail to distract; derivative style and scrappy production values are to be forgiven by the B-movie hound so long as the film is entertaining. But in assembling the ragtag team and eventually taking them underground to face their craven foes, The Mutant Chronicles fails spectacularly in that aim. It becomes instead a disengaged primer on all of the cliches it can muster for such a well-worn horror/sci-fi scenario, with fake scares, boilerplate tension, quiet moments, "surprise" deaths, betrayals, revelations, and at least two nearly identically played scenes of self-sacrifice. We're never given the slightest reason to care about these characters, their evolving relationships, or their mission.
So all there is to do is sit back and enjoy the scenery, which proves just as hard. In a transparent bid to compensate for its uneven CG and composite work, The Mutant Chronicles is artificially textured and desaturated all to hell (besides, for some reason, the blood splatters, which look laughably post-produced as a result). Much of the time Hunter painstakingly avoids further effects bills by shooting his subjects too close for too long, mucking up any proper sense of montage in the process. The end result? A film that looks and plays like an overlong cutscene from a third-tier video game. Is this all that's left for the unabashed B movie?
Should we go ahead with the funeral after all?