Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Mutant War (1987)

So anyway, the world has gone to shit yet again, and guys like our protagonist Harry Trent (Matt Mitler) are left to sift through the rubble.  Only problem is the rubble is positively festooned with old magazines (many of which Harry has already read), old bottles of Seagram’s Seven (which he really should have at least wiped the lip of before taking a pull or ten), and giant monsters (hooray!).  After saving young waif Spider (Kristine Waterman) from a “Mook,” Harry decides to help her rescue her sisters from the villainous Reinhart Rex (Cameron Mitchell, earning every penny of his paycheck) and his army of mutants.

Brett Piper’s Mutant War (aka Mutant Men Want Pretty Women) follows the boilerplate postapocalyptic narrative, but it has enough of a sense of humor to make it mildly charming.  Harry is the classic loner character.  He has himself, his harmonica, and his car (replete with a heavy laser gun).  He wastes his time reviewing  the ruins of a world in which he used to take part.  He subsists on the road, with nothing better to do than do nothing.  He also doesn’t want to get involved with humanity anymore.  His worldview has become one of aloof apathy.  And yet, he does get involved when he sees Spider in danger, because his indifference is a façade.  He wants to believe that he’s only out for number one, but he actually desires contact with other people, he desires something more than the cold artifacts of a bygone civilization.  Harry becomes the de facto leader of a ragtag crew of people who have formed themselves into villages, because his time alone has given him an edge they don’t possess.  They only want to live peacefully; Harry knows this is impossible.  He brings the reality of the situation into focus for them, and they, in turn, provide Harry with a sense of purpose.  After all, purpose doesn’t really exist without other people to give it to you.  This is Spider’s role.  She gives Harry a mission, and in this mission she also gives Harry the revelation that he needs to be an active participant in this postapocalyptic world.  She reconnects him to the world.  She also, by dint of her youthful pluck and naiveté, gives Harry a surrogate family to take care of.  He cautions her not to siphon gas with your mouth, even though he’s doing so right in front of her (“It can kill you”).  After Spider is poisoned by a mutant, Harry stays closeby overnight to watch over her as she fights off the infection.  He hugs her and refers to her as “my kid” more than once.  Harry is the quintessential lone gunfighter who trots into town, makes a connection, changes the lives of the people he contacts for the better (mostly), and then trots off (just with more hugging).  But the connection he makes will stay with him, as well.

Another thing the film deals with is the past (as all postapocalyptic films do; they are typically concerned as much with re-establishing the civilizations destroyed in whatever nuclear war/biological outbreak/natural disaster occurred as they are with seeing what those civilizations devolved into after the fall of society).  The filmmakers use voiceover narration for Harry’s inner monologue, and it’s in the style of a hardboiled detective novel; edged, stoic, and weary.  His favorite quote from his favorite book is, “You don’t know me, without you have read my memoirs,” which, as near as I can tell, is actually a paraphrasing of the opening line from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (not exactly Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key, but what can you do?).  He clings to relics of the past: his car, his harmonica, old magazines, old booze, et cetera.  He mumbles to himself like Popeye.  For as much as he is forced to survive in his current circumstances, he is preoccupied by the way things were.

More than this, the film contains notions about guilt stemming from the sins of the past.  The whole reason the world fell into ruin in the first place is because of a war between humanity and a bunch of “pig-faced” aliens.  But it’s not the war itself that caused the widespread devastation, it’s what the humans did to end it that did.  They created a new weapon, Neutron Ninety bombs, that defeated the aliens but also took mankind with it.  Harry was a soldier in the war, and this reputation gives him a certain notoriety for which he doesn’t particularly care.  He has a combination of survivor’s guilt as well as guilt over his part in the calamity that destroyed the planet.  At least in part, Harry distances himself from other people because that’s his punishment on himself.  His relationship with Spider (someone we can assume, by her youth, wasn’t alive at the time of the war, or, if she were, has no conscious idea of the world as it was, and thus, makes her an innocent in the proceedings) absolves him slightly of this guilt.

As for the film itself, it’s impressive for something made on about sixty grand.  Piper tries to keep things visually interesting, and the effort is appreciated.  This is bolstered by the use of matte paintings for backgrounds, the angles of which make for some nice compositions.  They also provide a nice stylistic touch in their flatness (whether this was intentional or not, I don’t know, but I liked it).  There is also the differentiation of styles for different perspectives.  When Harry looks through his spyglass, we get his view as an iris, but what we see is various moments edited together with an odd grain to them (I can’t say if this was from the video’s source, but again, I liked it).  An alien moves around his spaceship’s interior, and we get the view from his perspective with heavy red filtering and handheld camera work.  Later, this same alien meets some humans, and we get his POV once more, but now it’s more pixelated, as if frames were dropped out on purpose.  This perspective also uses a doubling of what he sees with his electric eye in a separate, red-tinted inset frame.  The special effects run the gamut from miniature work to makeup effects to forced perspective shots to stop motion monsters, and I loved it all.  The story moves along well enough, though it does sag and go into some nonsensical territory occasionally (Mitchell goes at the material like a Renaissance Faire Henry VIII with a giant turkey leg).  It also leans into mawkishness more than it should, but its handmade enthusiasm overcomes many of its weaker aspects.  Not shabby for an ambitious director’s third effort.

MVT:  The practical effects nerd in me has to give it to the effects.  I have to admit, I was overjoyed when I saw that some of the creatures were done with stop motion techniques.

Make or Break:  The scene with the alien selling munitions to the humans was great, not only in that it affirms that an extraterrestrial’s costume can include a plain white tee shirt, but also in that it has several humorous moments that actually work quite well.

Score:  6.5/10

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