The New Mutants (2020)
Director: Josh Boone
Screenwriters: Josh Boone, Knate Lee
Starring: Maisie Williams, Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Heaton, Blu Hunt, Henry Zaga, Alice Braga
In April 2018, a new and different X-Men movie was due to be released. Based on a game-changing run of the comics by Chris Claremont, Bob McLeod and Bill Sienkiewicz, The New Mutants promised a darker, more horror-inflected take on teenage mutants adjusting to their incredible powers. Now, more than two years later, following numerous changes to its release date thanks to a combination of Disney’s Fox acquisition and the worldwide pandemic, The New Mutants is finally here. Is it any good? It certainly has its moments.
After narrowly escaping the mysterious destruction of the Cheyenne reservation she lives on, Dani Moonstar (Blu Hunt) wakes up in a secure institution that helps young and potentially dangerous mutants control their gifts. But Dani’s arrival coincides with strange happenings in the hospital, and before long she and her fellow inmates are in mortal peril from their worst and most deeply repressed fears manifesting in the real world.
There is a lot to like in The New Mutants. While director Josh Boone might have been pushed and pulled by two studios re-scheduling the release of his film five times (the poster with an increasingly ridiculous list of possible arrival dates became a meme in its own right), this is not another project that was destroyed in the edit. It is a complete vision, and aside from the removal of some now fruitless sequel-bating plot stuff, it arrives to us intact. What you have to question is whether the original vision for the film was sturdy enough to stand up on its own.
The strongest element of the The New Mutants is the characters’ interactions with each other. The first half of the film is like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by way of The Breakfast Club. It’s the only time in any X-Men movie aside from a brief scene in First Class where supposedly teenage mutants are allowed to act like teenagers – insecure, over-compensating and bitchy, but ultimately just trying to understand themselves.
Anya Taylor-Joy is the love-to-hate highlight of the ensemble as Illyana Rasputin, the film’s RP McMurphy/John Bender stand-in, and by extension the group mean girl. She has a dragon hand puppet called Lockheed, who will be important later, and a magic sword. Maisie Williams is Rahne Sinclair, the diplomat and heart of the group who is also a werewolf. Charlie Heaton is Sam Guthrie, a weirdo who can unpredictably fire himself forward with immense force. And Henry Zaga is Berto da Costa, a rich brat who can turn into a walking supernova. They, along with Dani, whose powers are a mystery for now, are kept in check by Alice Braga’s Dr Reyes (a more approachable Nurse Ratched/Assistant Principal Vernon), her force field powers and her facility’s voice-activated security doors.
Where the film falls down somewhat is in its pacing, which is very stop-start, and the storytelling which operates on a loose dream logic for much of the time, not necessarily disastrous for a film dealing with repressed fears and nightmares, but not a choice that makes the film an easy watch.
When the action does eventually kick in, it’s dazzling enough, the CG creature the gang have to fight for the finale has an interesting design and Illya/Magik’s powers in particular are made for big screen spectacle.
The horror imagery feels like a toned-down version of the first It film, and you can practically sense Boone straining under the creative shackles put on him early in production. Fox were reportedly not happy with many of the scarier ideas or images so they had to be scaled back, and by the time Disney had taken over and given him their blessing to complete his vision it was too late to make changes anywhere but in the edit. Much of the film was shot in a real asylum, which certainly must have helped this game cast get in the right headspace; you just want a few really lasting creepy images to complete the effect.
There are little moments of quiet beauty here and there. It’s great to see a tender queer teen relationship front-and-centre and presented without comment. Dani and Rahne’s moment of intimate connection takes place under an energy shield being pelted with rain, a unique visual if there ever was one.
The New Mutants is inevitably disappointing, not quite delivering as a comic book horror or a genuine X-Men instalment, but the cast and their winning chemistry makes it a bittersweet fact that this will be a one-and-done. Destined for cult status in the future perhaps, but for now just not gifted enough.