THE NEW MUTANTS

★★★

AN ENJOYABLY SMALL-SCALE SUPERHEROIC CHARACTER PIECE

THEATRICAL REVIEW
By Jake Watt
5th September 2020

In 2015, Josh Boone and Knate Lee officially signed with 20th Century Fox to make 'The New Mutants', a spinoff of Fox's previous 'X-Men' franchise, after pitching a horror trilogy. Originally scheduled for release in 2018, it was delayed twice until late 2019 to avoid other movies. This was eventually hindered by Disney acquiring Fox Studios, as 'The New Mutants' had to be incorporated into Disney's already busy schedule and the rights to 'X-Men' reverted back to Marvel Studios.

Now the year is 2020, there's a global pandemic and people are too scared to go to cinemas. The timing is perfect for Disney to finally get rid of some unwanted baggage, paving the way for a MCU reboot and giving critics a new Worst Movie Ever! to heap insults upon, a ritual I previously discussed in my review of 'Fantasy Island'.

Based on the comic by Chris Claremont and Bob McLeod, 'The New Mutants' is a young adult horror drama about a group of anguished and horny teens who are mastering their powers in a testing facility disguised as a hospital. Dr Cecilia Reyes (Alice Braga, 'Elysium', channeling Patrick Stewart's Professor X and Ian Holm's Ash from 'Alien') probes them with scientific tests while training them to control their destructive energies. The twist here is that each of these youngsters has accidentally killed people when their abilities first manifested (think back to Rogue's disastrous first kiss in the original 'X-Men') and are suffering deep trauma as a result.

Things begin to spiral out of control when new recruit Danielle Moonstar (Blu Hunt) arrives on the campus. Religious Irish werewolf Rahne Sinclair (Maisie Williams, 'Mary Shelley'), Southern hick Sam Guthrie (Charlie Heaton, TV's 'Stranger Things'), Brazilian playboy Roberto DaCosta (Henry Zaga) and bullying Russian Illyana Rasputin (Anna Taylor-Joy, 'Glass', 'Emma.') begin seeing their darkest fears come to life. In the process of trying to work out why this is happening, they begin to suspect that the hospital is hiding plenty of secrets of its own.

SWITCH: 'THE NEW MUTANTS' TRAILER 2

Just as 'X-Men: Dark Phoenix' was a darker and more psychologically complex entry than the other 'X-Men' movies, on a conceptual level, 'The New Mutants' is refreshingly different. A group of murderous hormonal teenagers, all with dangerous superpowers that they can't control, terrorised by manifestations of their most personal insecurities? A young superhero haunted by her history of child slavery? A compelling lesbian love story between two central characters, forging ahead from the already groundbreaking LGBTQ+ relationship in 'Deadpool 2'? Far from being an explosive action flick, Boone has created a smaller-scale character piece that uses horror to focus on real life issues, reminiscent of the 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' TV series (it actually plays in the background at various points during the film).

Boone is assisted by a charismatic cast, with Anya Taylor-Joy standing out as a bullying, sword-wielding, teleporting mutant with a purple dragon hand puppet. The film's best moments occur due to the character pairings, like the easy back-and-forth of Roberto and Sam's friendship or Rahne and Dani, lying side-by-side on the grass, watching rain pitter-pattering off the dome of a glowing force-field.

To understand the failings of 'The New Mutants', you have to take into account the importance of reshoots. They are completely normal on a superhero film of this size, and are routinely budgeted. It's true that to some productions the definition of the term is "complete overhaul", but more often than that it translates to "minor fixes". It's this latter take that is actually part of the overall strategy for the storytellers over at Marvel Studios. Massive changes are often made during the editing stage, and not-so-great versions of the finished product exist as little as a month before theatrical release.

Far from being an explosive action flick, Boone has created a smaller-scale character piece that uses horror to focus on real life issues.

There is an axiom in the industry that a movie is written three times: once as the script is coming together; again as new ideas are being thrown around during production; and a third time as everything is being cut together. The final draft of a screenplay is never a transcript of the finished product. Marvel Studio's tactic is really just an extreme case, with millions of dollars flying around.

My point is: due to Disney's acquisition of Fox and the freakishly long post-production process, 'The New Mutants' never had the opportunity for any reshoots. A lot of the flaws - there is tonal whiplash, the mysteries aren't mysterious enough, the horror element is weak (a mix of gore and lukewarm scares on par with 'It Chapter 2'), the CGI looks like it's from 2016, and there are rough edges on numerous scenes - might have been ironed out if the film hadn't been swept up in behind-the-scenes turmoil.

However, being unlucky doesn't give Josh Boone complete absolution as a director. While the strength of his movie lies in its compelling new superheroes, he miscalculates by giving them just one poorly-hidden and thinly-written antagonist to spar with. 'The New Mutants' desperately needed some sub-boss enemies with typhoon powers or dreadlocked hair whips for the kids to overcome. Jon Hamm was originally flagged to appear as Nathaniel Essex, the overarching villain of the cinematic 'X-Men' universe, but this plan was nixed by Fox. He would have been a delightful and much-needed addition.

Boone attempts to conclude his film with a message about overcoming personal trauma via the strength gained through friendship; however his characters don't get the chance to complete their individual arcs. After all, 'The New Mutants' was planned as the first film in a trilogy. So, if you want to know Roberto Da Costa's full story - Antonio Banderas was supposed to appear as his father and leader of the Hellfire Club in the sequel - or why Illyana Rasputin has a magic sword and a dragon obsession - the third film was supposed to adapt the Inferno storyline - then your only option is to pick up the comics.

Despite these stumbles and even though I don't belong to the young adult demographic that 'The New Mutants' is clearly aimed at, I still found myself invested in the story, mainly due to a cast of talented individuals and the uniqueness of the premise.

Just like 'Dark Phoenix', Fox's greatest loss is Disney's greatest gain: even as 'The New Mutants' opened, the discussion was already focused on how Disney's MCU is bound to resuscitate 'X-Men'. That's a shame because Josh Boone's relic from a defunct franchise, unceremoniously dumped in cinemas in the middle of a pandemic, took a step in a potentially interesting new direction.

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