Starring: Maisie Williams (Game of Thrones), Anya Taylor-Joy (Split), Charlie Heaton (Stranger Things), Alice Braga (Predators), Blu Hunt (Another Life), Henry Zaga (Looking for Alaska), Adam Beach (Suicide Squad)
Director: Josh Boone (The Fault in Our Stars)
Writers: Josh Boone & Knate Lee (Kidnap)
Runtime: 1 hour 38 minutes
Release Date: 28th August (US), 4th September (UK)
In our current reality where the cinematic calendar is constantly shifting, The New Mutants is like the hipster lurking in the back watching and laughing: it was constantly pushing back its release date before it was the norm. Originally slated for release in April 2018, this X-Men spin-off was repeatedly kicked from slot to slot for over two years due to planned reshoots that never happened and complications related to the Disney/Fox merger, finally given a firm date of April 2020 before COVID-19 hit it like almost every other major release. Finally in cinemas whilst the pandemic still afflicts the world and its own franchise having died over a year ago, there were many theories running about the internet as The New Mutants sat on the shelf that it was so unwatchable that it may never see the light of day. However, after having finally witnessed this mythic film, it’s safe to say that it isn’t some unsalvageable abomination. It’s actually just…fine.
There were several reports before release that claimed that all references to Fox’s X-Men films had been excised from the final cut of The New Mutants, supposedly so the film could be retroactively placed in the Marvel Cinematic Universe should Disney want to. Those reports, much like a lot of the rumours surrounding the film, are bunkum. The film not only mentions the X-Men several times, but actually ties into the events of Apocalypse and Logan, in the process typing up some dangling plot threads from the prior films. However, those pieces of continuity are relatively minor, as The New Mutants is otherwise a standalone story set almost entirely in one location. The film is something of a mash-up of teen coming-of-age movie and horror flick, most comparable to A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, but unfortunately neither element is particularly exemplary.
The teen angst stuff works well enough on its own, with director Josh Boone’s experience on films like The Fault in Our Stars and Stuck in Love evident in the grounded performances and tender exchanges; if only these moments had more time to breathe. Meanwhile, the horror elements are extremely lacklustre and barely even worth a hair raise. For a film whose premise is based around people’s fears being brought to life, there’s not any particularly frightful images or haunting concepts here that aren’t cliché, with the filmmakers’ imagination of horror extending only about as far as ‘Slender Man in a tacky silk shirt.’ With that said, in spite of the tepid scares, the film ultimately works somehow. The pacing is solid, the storytelling is efficient if a little rushed, the third act is exciting when it finally arrives, and its themes of overcoming trauma and rejection hit home. Those planned reshoots may have been helpful, especially if they used them to either amp up the horror or bolster the character development, but the final product is far from terrible. Compared to many of the big budget X-Men films with their bombastic scale and lack of respect for the source material, The New Mutants is competently made by comparison.
The film may give Maisie Williams top billing due to her being the biggest star, and the marketing focuses most on Anya Taylor-Joy because her character’s powers are the most visually impressive, but the protagonist of The New Mutants is actually Blu Hunt’s Dani Moonstar. Hunt delivers a perfectly fine central performance, but Moonstar is a bit of a blank slate and she has little to work with given how the story obstructs much of her true nature. Where Hunt shines is in her scenes with Williams, who plays the religiously-conflicted lycanthrope Rahne. The two have solid chemistry and just enough screen time together to cement a solid relationship, easily taking the crown of best LGBTQ+ representation in a mainstream superhero film. Then again, given the level of competition so far, that’s not exactly hard.
Taylor-Joy is as captivating an actor as ever, even though the characterisation of Illyana is a tad all over the place. She’s presented as this arrogant and frigid bully compensating for her inner trauma, but not only is her backstory wildly complicated compared to her peers and not explained too well, but her demeanour very suddenly shifts in the third act because the story needs her in action mode. The skeleton of a solid arc is there for Illyana, but it feels like there’s a few key steps missing. Charlie Heaton is somewhat wasted as Sam, his only distinguishing characteristic being his inconsistent Kentucky accent that fluctuates from non-existent to Benoit Blanc between scenes, whilst Henry Zaga’s Roberto is…there. Alice Braga is fine enough as Cecilia Reyes, but her characterisation is also slightly unclear; is she a good person forced into doing bad things, or a bad person hiding behind a kind exterior? The only other character of note is Adam Beach in a brief role as Dani’s father, and…wait, Marilyn Manson was the voice of one of the monsters? Huh. That’s an odd bit of trivia for you.
The New Mutants is by no means a terrible looking film, but for a production that allegedly cost $80 million, it looks like one that barely spent a quarter of that. For comparison, the first Deadpool cost just under $60 million, and that film had dozens of sets, bigger name stars and extensive CGI. Much of the film takes place in the halls of a hospital but, unlike Fox’s similarly confined Fantastic Four reboot, the restrictive locale works to film’s scale and tone. The cinematography by Peter Deming is suitably moody and grounded, giving the picture an indie quality that helps separate it from its big-budget cousins, and the visual effects are for the most part well-designed if not flawlessly executed; Illyana’s Magik powers and the film’s final boss in particular stand out. The film’s most underwhelming technical aspect is the film’s score, composed by Mark Snow of The X-Files fame. The music is almost unnoticeable, sounding barely above the generic royalty-free horror tracks you can find online, and its lack of oomph only makes the moments of horror fall even flatter.
Despite its many faults, The New Mutants is a distinct and enjoyable little superhero movie, and with some tweaks it could have been the breath of fresh air the genre needed. In its clearly undercooked released form and under intense scrutiny after two years of build-up, it’s something of a miracle that it’s as decent as it is. At least we can now put all the wild speculation and memes to rest, and with it the last vestiges of Fox’s mixed handling of the X-Men property. When all is said and done, The New Mutants will end up just being an interesting footnote to a franchise that lasted twenty years, with its troubled production history and cult internet status overshadowing the plucky little film that tried hiding underneath. It might not be worth the hype, but I’d certainly watch it ten times in a row before I even considered watching X-Men Origins: Wolverine or Dark Phoenix again.
FINAL VERDICT: 6/10
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