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‘The New Mutants’ Review: Tepid superhero horror

New Mutants
20th Century Studios
 

Editor’s Note: As movie theaters begin opening their doors all over the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, we highly recommend you evaluate your local conditions and theater hygiene standards before heading out to the theater. While you’re there, please also follow all recommendations from the CDC and local authorities. No movie is worth potential exposure to a virus, but we’re cognizant that some areas may be safer than others at the moment. Do what you need to do to feel safe, and remember: just wear the damn mask if you do decide to go.

There have always been films where a certain aspect of the movie — be it technical or otherwise — have elevated what would be typically a boring ho-hum product into some sort of legendary story or cultural bellwether. Many remember that The Jazz Singer was the first movie to use sync-sound in a big release, but few would actually torture themselves with a view of Al Jolson’s hideous minstrelsy in order to truly witness what would have been one of the most pivotal developments in cinema as we know it. Few would ever want to watch The Conqueror, but a few every year are suckered into it thanks to the wild urban legends surrounding its shoot and the subsequent literal fallout that followed. For a recent example, one only needs to look at something like Trolls World Tour, where the movie is only, say, a quarter as interesting as the situation surrounding it. And the legacy of Josh Boone’s The New Mutants, which has taken some three or four years to fully unfold, will likely be similar. Its lengthy path to the screen, as outlined in a series of already-excellent articles all of the chaos surround it, is infinitely more fascinating than the film itself, which is the kind of crushingly mediocre spin-off superhero movie that came to define the latter half of the pre-Disney Fox slate.

Unlike Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four or Simon Kinberg’s Dark Phoenix, though, there’s a level of thematic ambition here that makes New Mutants more watchable, if it ultimately often falls flat on its face. There are two interesting and competing ideas here, and both are not executed well. There’s Boone’s attempt to make a superhero take on The Breakfast Club, which as any long-time readers of the X-Books will know, isn’t too far fetched and might have been pretty interesting. Indeed, taken at the broadest perspective, the film mirrors John Hughes’ classic in most ways, being about a series of super-powered youths, trapped in a facility under the supervision of a boneheaded adult, who have to get over their differences with one another and learn from each other’s trauma in order to heal. This is all well-and-good, and Boone, best known for directing the blockbuster adaptation of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, has a decent understanding of the young adult psyche.

 
 

Here’s your “New Mutants:” There’s Dani Moonstar (Blu Hunt), the new kid, a Native American girl who arrived at this building after her reservation was destroyed by some unknown force, and her as-of-yet unidentified powers might be responsible. There’s Sam (Charlie Heaton), better known to Comic Book fans as Cannonball, who was responsible for a tragic accident in the southern mines in which he worked with his father and now tries to self-harm, even though his powers (he can shoot off “like a cannonball) prevent him from being hurt). There’s Rahne (Maisie Williams), a wolf-girl who was abused by a priest following the development of her mutant powers (a scarred “M” on her back suggests quite a bit), and who begins nursing a crush on Dani as soon as she sees her. There’s Roberto (Henry Zaga), a rich Brazillian mutant who can basically become the Human Torch when he gets hot and heated, and his trauma is directly linked to his previous relationships. And then there’s Illyana (Anya Taylor-Joy), the mean girl, who can open portals to a place called “Limbo,” summon up armor and a bitchin’ sword, and talks to a purple dragon puppet named Lockheed (Kitty Pryde must be pretty sad in this universe).

Her backstory here, as compared to the one she’s given in the comics, is genuinely horrific (meant in that it’s upsetting to watch and incredibly mishandled in the film itself), and it’s mainly mauled by Boone’s other competing idea. The director wanted The New Mutants to be the first modern superhero horror movie (had Hancock still been the unabridged version of its original draft, Tonight, He Comes, by the time it hit screens in 2008, it may very well have been beaten), as a part of Fox’s pre-acquisition quest to provide viewers with something different than what the MCU was giving them. This may have been a somewhat novel idea back in 2017, but in the period between when the film hit theaters and now, there’s been at least one good attempt at making this idea a reality (James Gunn’s BrightBurn, which is significantly underrated), and it just lays bare how awful these two concepts are put together. Our heroes are trapped in an abandoned mental health facility with their overseer-and-therapist, Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga), whose mutant powers helpt to generate the forcefield that prevents her young wards from fleeing. But something else is trapped in the hospital with the group, which causes each of them to see visualizations of their worst nightmares — their worst traumas, their greatest fears — come to life around them.

And it’s in this idea, which Boone fought for and was apparently disappointed when Fox didn’t jump for his ideas on making it a “true horror film,” is where The New Mutants runs aground. I agree with him on that front — it would have been better for the whole thing to be scary, or for it to be not at all so, but the half-hearted mixture of both tepid YA drama and equally stagnant and boring horror doesn’t serve anyone particularly well. It’s ugly and unoriginal, with a grey-blue color palette that’s as unappealing as it is boring. Most of the film’s scares come in halting hallucinations, where the kids fully break with reality and witness, say, the manifestations of their dead parents or the people who harmed them, and the non-corporeal spooky antagonists, say, like the “Smiley-Men,” who are meant to represent the Russian gangsters who abused Illyana as a child though filtered through the lens of the Crooked Man from The Conjuring 2, aren’t particularly memorable, outside of the enormous amount of bad taste that went into their creation. Coupled with the film’s reluctance to have its young characters use their powers in any meaningful way, and there isn’t even really any fun action to fall back upon, though the last 10 minutes, in which a giant Demon Bear attacks the facility, may be able to push it over the line for many viewers. But it didn’t for me, and it was somewhat depressing to watch the film head down into the trenches of the typical superhero beat-em-up without any of the energy or verve that makes them worth watching in the first place.

 
 

It’s a shame, too, as you can see Boone’s skill working with young talent shine through despite New Mutants‘ dire conditions. Taylor-Joy is in a weird spot with her characterization, but her stubborn badassery and natural charisma overwhelm some of the trouble spots. Hunt is a swell actor, and her romance with Williams (who is held back a bit by the very nature of her character, and she feels miscast) doesn’t feel patronizing or dull, but it’s rather charming in the kind of quaint and cute way that you’ll often see in YA-oriented cinema. The two share a quiet moment under the forcefield dome during a nighttime rainstorm, watching thousands of droplets hit the orange surface and bloom into little circles, and I began to imagine a movie worthy of the scene for the rest of the runtime.

My sincere hope from all of this chaos surrounding Boone’s film is that people don’t abandon the concept of a teen-led superhero movie, because it’s significantly more interesting as a concept than what’s presented here. There are few science-fictional metaphors better for the teen experience than this, and if it were applied right, it could make for an incredible film (or, more precisely, a better, pulpier TV series). But The New Mutants isn’t that film. It’s not something you’ll want to laugh at with your friends or dunk on or anything else — it’s just the typical type of uninspired bad that will fade fast from your memory, much like every mainline X-Film not featuring Hugh Jackman or Ryan Reynolds in the lead since 2015 has been. And that sucks.