Mutants (2009)

Extinction is just a heartbeat away.
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Mutants - Extinction is Just A Heartbeat Away

Directors who choose to make zombie outbreak, err, I mean virus outbreak movies don't make life very easy for themselves: in an already saturated market, if you elect to add to that canon then you will have a difficult task to make your work stand out from the rest. Is that the case with Mutants (2009)? Well, this is a competent riff on the theme, it's well made, but it doesn't quite do enough to make itself remarkable.

At the outset this seems as if it will be a splatterfest: we're straight in with a (very) potted history onscreen of the outbreak, before our possible heroine is wiped out by a speeding ambulance. Here we cut to the inside of the vehicle, and meet our actual characters: medic Sonia (Hélène de Fougerolles), her partner Marco (Francis Renaud) and the standard-issue military hard case who shoots first, asks questions never. They're heading deep into the country in search of a military facility called NOAH, and have to feel their way through potentially dangerous terrain as they seek fuel and supplies en route. In due course, they encounter an enraged infected guy, lose the gun-ho broad and later realise that Marco's been infected.

As they hole up in an abandoned building, Sonia estimates that he has about three days until he becomes violent and dehumanised. As for him being infectious, that is less of a problem because, as she reveals to him by showing him a nearly-healed bite, she seems to have immunity. If they can only get to NOAH in time, there could be hope...

The film thereafter changes pace, focusing primarily on Sonia's mental state as she struggles to deal with Marco's imminent decline and, probably, his death. So desperate is she to save him, though, that despite having the means to put him out of his misery, she instead locks him away in the building's cellar. Then, as if things couldn't get any worse, a gang of marauders appear, attracting the infected to the area and threatening Sonia's already-precarious situation. Did I mention she was pregnant? Amazingly, despite the fact that women are pregnant for on average about 18 months of their lives, it's always just the moment when zombie/vampire outbreaks or demented killers decide to strike. Typical!

There's a lot to be said for Mutants. As with a lot of modern French horror it has a polished, cool colour palate and there is evidently technical prowess behind it: this is one of the coldest zombie/outbreak films I've seen, as even a film like Dead Snow has interior shots which appear warm. Not so here - it's wintry and chilly throughout, with some lovely long shots of the Alpine scenery which help to establish this. It also, unusually, opts to keep the number of the infected who appear on-screen quite low. Save but for the sequences towards the end, the only virus victim we're really dealing with is Marco, and his transformation takes days, not a few hours, or even seconds as in 28 Days Later. Everything is more sedate here and the film strives to make this a character-focused phenomenon, with a tiny cast and nearly constant on-screen time for Sonia.

However, for all this, it isn't really bringing us anything new, either. Although the main actors do a reasonable job, the plot doesn't do them justice - its pace jumps around a fair bit, speeding in some places and lagging in others, and the late addition of the 'bad guys' (perhaps in homage to Dawn of the Dead and Savini's gang) feels like an inauthentic way of upping the tension at the last minute. They're neither nameless nor really characters, and they don't add a great deal to proceedings, except allowing Sonia to announce her pregnancy (and this plot device does finally figure in the end, in perhaps more of a positive way than I imagined). Mutants is reasonable quality, looks high quality, but is too derivative to really stand out, although its willingness to go in for a character-centric approach may endear it to some genre fans who want to see more made of human relationships in films on this popular modern horror theme.
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