The New Mutants: A Very Long Engagement
It’s evident that the behind the scenes of New Mutants is more fascinating than the film itself. How could it not be? Shot in 1993, New Mutants was delayed for a number of reasons–the Disney acquisition of FOX, the WTO protests, a goat ate one of the film reels, a desire to reshoot it into something ‘not shitty’, COVID-19–and ultimately saw release in late August 2020. No one saw it. By then the stars had all aged out of “Dawson’s Creek style teenager” and well into adulthood. Anya Taylor-Joy is playing mothers of teenagers by now. Only through some contractual obligation did the movie even see theatrical release; I’m sure if there wasn’t it would have been dumped onto Hulu or Disney+ with minimal fanfare. It would be far more interesting if the film was a ridiculous debacle, a disaster on par with Amazing Spider-Man 2, X-Men Origins: Wolverine or other vaporware superhero movies. Instead the feeling New Mutants inspired was one of disappointment. That’s it? All that fuss for…that? Make no mistake: New Mutants is a bad movie. But it’s not bad enough to be good.
The cast attends a “being in New Mutants” support group
Dani Moonstar (Blu Hunt, Another Life) wakes up in a facility after her entire family is wiped out by a number of fireballs that also make bear sounds. Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga, Predators) informs her she’s a mutant, there for her own good so she can learn to use her powers without hurting others. Dani doesn’t have much choice in the matter; the facility is surrounded by a force field that prevents escape. She soon meets her fellow inmates: Roberto (Henry Zaga, XOXO), the rich hunk from Brazil who can set himself on fire; Ilyana (Anya Taylor-Joy, Playmobil: The Movie), the teleporting plus able to turn her arm into a sword (“total Soul Calibur shit”, as my roommate put it) psycho mean girl who uses a puppet named Lockheed to roast people a la Bubbles’ Conky or Cyril O’Reily’s Jericho; Rahne (Maisie Williams, The Owners), who is nice, religious, boyishly attractive and transforms into a wolf; Sam (Charlie Heaton, Shut In), a kid with Raylan Givens’ backstory and the ability to blast off. Within the first 15 minutes Dani’s already trying to kill herself, that’s how lighthearted a romp The New Mutants is. She doesn’t, as otherwise this mess would be blissfully over with.
There are multiple shower scenes… SUSPICIOUS.
The Breakfast Club famously boiled the (white) teenage experience down to five types: the criminal, the princess, the athlete, the brain, and the basket case. Since then approximately 70% of movies about teenagers have been ripping that off, and The New Mutants is no exception. However, the film makes some tweaks on the formula. Roberto/Sunspot is The Athlete, Sam/Cannonball The Redneck (a reverse Brain, because everyone from the South is sub-average intelligence), Moonstar is The Princess (specifically Pocahontas, because the film is racist), Rahne The Religious Nut and Ilyana can be either The Basket Case or The Racist, but I prefer the latter for her. For some reason The New Mutants’ creatives thought it’d be interesting if Ilyana spewed racial invective whenever she’s in a scene with Dani Moonstar. Why have a mean girl when you can have a bigoted mean girl? She eventually stops once she gains respect for Dani, but that shouldn’t let her off the hook! Racism is not, like, some quirky character beat.
Her “best” racial insult is calling Dani “Standing Rock”, and I say that because it suggests that Ilyana is attuned to contemporary political events in the indigenous community.
This has been marketed as a horror film but those going in with expectations of that sort will be sorely disappointed. (Expectations of any sort are a bad idea, though.) Moonstar, surprisingly, has illusion powers and they’re manifesting at night, causing other characters to re-experience traumatic events in their past. Cannonball returns to the mines, remembers killing all the other miners. Roberto sees an apparition of his crispy girlfriend. Rahne sees her abusive reverend, Ilyana a guy in a smiley face mask in the most blatant effort to mimic a slasher movie. This shit would barely be scary to babies, much less anyone with any affinity for horror. Smiley Face Mask multiplies eventually to be a gang of monster-face guys that the teens must face, and it feels tacked on, unnecessary, like some executive demanded more horror elements and the production begrudgingly obliged. I suppose the “best” part about this is that the Smiley Face Mask guy is reference to Ilyana’s childhood when she was in sex slavery and molested by dudes wearing smiley face masks. The New Mutants saw the Nightmare on Elm Street remake and said “yes, MORE menacing pedophiles!”.
The creatures from The Descent plus garbage?
On that point, Limbo is now a place Ilyana went with her lil puppet to hide from child molestation, which I guess is as cool as a Hell dimension. While we’re on the subject of trauma, Cannonball self-harms. Melodrama is baked into the formula, but this film really takes it up to eleven. Everyone killed someone or got diddled or both. Even their attempts at having fun are gloomy, like when they play truth or dare with a lie detector, or when they roofie Dr. Reyes and decide to use their newfound freedom not to escape but to dance to music and push each other around in a wheelchair. The whole hospital aspect doesn’t work because never does the audience think it’s not crooked. For one thing, no staff besides Dr. Reyes. You couldn’t fucking hire some extras to play orderlies? Despite the characters being so dumb that it takes minute 61 for someone to say “I don’t think this is a hospital”, Reyes does an awful job of not foreshadowing the fact that she is, indeed, the villain of the picture. Considering her expertise consists of taking the new mutants through breathing exercises and sticking them with syringes, the film could’ve tried harder to obfuscate this. If she had a mustache she’d twirl it.
Same energy, really.
Dani and Rahne bond quickly and it becomes more than that, as foreshadowed by Rahne watching a scene of Willow and Tara kiss on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (who’s watching Buffy now? Joss Whedon got cancelled like 5 cancellation cycles ago). Their laying down in a cemetary staring at the Windows login screen sky inspires a lot of woeful dialogue, the kind I came to loathe from the director’s prior effort, Cancer Kidz (aka The Fault in Our Stars). But yes, they totally make out. That means Josh Boone accomplished what Claremont couldn’t despite his many, many attempts and his generously laid subtext: girl-on-girl in the X-Men. Throw in someone mind controlling someone else into wearing some bondage togs and The New Mutants is the most faithful adaptation of the classic X-Men books of the 80s ever. Their pairing makes sense; we’ve all seen Bobcat Goldthwait’s Sleeping Dog Lie and know why a dog is a woman’s best friend. I don’t mean to downplay the storyline; I understand the merits of the argument that any representation is good representation. However, I would counter that it’d be better if the first time a superhero movie centered a same-sex romance was in something good, or something people saw, or in a franchise that was not dead on arrival. Interested in the continued romance between Dani and Rahne? Tough shit.
Imagine what Harry Knowles’ review of The New Mutants would be like.
Throughout Dr. Reyes mentions her superiors and implies that if the kids improve they could go on to join the X-Men. In fact, she’s a part of the Essex Corporation. Dani sees this when her ill-defined powers cause her to read Reyes’ mind and see clips from Logan. Given the kids’ traumatic pasts keep attacking them and Dani is involved, mutant heads will recognize this is a half-assed, dumbass version of The Demon Bear Saga, the New Mutants storyline. Yet absent are the evocative Sienkiewicz visuals and in their place are the shittiest CGI 80 million dollars can buy. Reyes is given orders to euthanize Dani, and when she fails she tries to turn the other kids against Dani by revealing she’s behind all the flashback monsters. The one good moment, and that’s questionable, is an homage to Deep Blue Sea when out of nowhere a CGI bear made of smoke (and, uh, CGI) smashes open the facility and eats Dr. Reyes. Remember how in the comics she’s a friend of the X-Men? Well, here she’s eaten by the Lost smoke monster’s ursine cousin. What a fate.
Amazing spectacle. Simply amazing.
And. Oh god. Oh god. The Demon Bear. It looks so bad. Like most superhero movies, The New Mutants devolves into computer gibberish for the third act, which I can normally take or leave. But the computer gibberish here looks terrible, and there’s no compelling emotional fulcrum for me to overlook the technical deficiencies. Flame On Sunspot straight up resembles the Human Torch from the 2005 Fantastic Four movie. The last 20 or so minutes sees our heroes fighting a smoke bear while Rahne desperately tries to get Dani to wake up, since her nightmares are creating the bear. Again, The New Mutants blows its budget on this and the result is still laughable. We get the terrible codename drop of Rahne going “[you can’t stop the bear] It’s magic” and Ilyana responding “so am I”. (I wish she had said “so am I, but it’s spelled with a ‘k’ for some reason.) She goes into Limbo and this causes her eyes to turn Mortal Kombat blue and her Lockheed puppet becomes a CGI lil Spyro the Dragon. Okay? Then it turns back into a puppet later? Whatever! Fuck it. Through the help of Dani’s dead dad (Adam Beach!), Dani makes peace with herself even though she never acknowledges she killed her entire reservation through bad dreams and the bear is tamed into dissipating into bear smoke across the countryside. The teens are free to leave the facility to nothing fucking on the horizon because there’s never going to be a sequel. 86 minutes of this shit. Blimey.
Let Lockheed talk. Who cares at this point. Get T.J. Miller to do the voice, he would’ve been an acceptable choice back when this was supposed to come out.
As with all these X-films, The New Mutants takes some liberties with characters’ backgrounds. Cecilia Reyes goes from Puerto Rican to Brazilian, because fuck it, both speak Spanish so what’s the difference. Sunspot, who is Afro-Brazilian in the comics, is light-skinned as hell here and in an interview the director gave he said he cast Henry Zaga because he wanted Sunspot to look “rich”. We’ve all seen The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, buddy, we all know black people can be rich. Prick. The lack of sensitivity to minority representation may only seriously concern the most ardent “social justice warriors”, but it speaks to the lack of care taken in this film. You could’ve gotten it right if you tried a little harder. Moreover, the diversity accurately conveyed isn’t so hot either. Dani Moonstar is Native American and only Native American. That’s her personality trait, everything revolves around her identity. The fucking thing begins with her doing voiceover about a Native American proverb for Christ’s sake. Oh, she’s also a lesbian but that’s value added to the costume department putting her in plaid. If the filmmakers were going to shift identities around and not adhere to canon, why not change Sam and Ilyana so the actors don’t have to put on atrocious accents? There’s no reason Ilyana has to be Russian. Give Sam a bit more intelligence and then he doesn’t have to be from the South. It’d spare the talent and the audience.
“Adam Beach! Why are you here?” “This is a movie with Native Americans, meaning it’s required to have either me, Wes Studi or Graham Greene in it!”
The acting is pretty dreadful, with the normally reliable Anya Taylor-Joy giving the worst performance I’ve ever seen her give. It comes down to the awful decision to have her do that Russian accent and, uh, only having Rocky & Bullwinkle as research. What’s worse is the accent flits in and out so she’s not even consistent in sucking. Henry Zaga’s Sunspot is more popped collar than character, Charlie Heaton is given little to do besides resemble a redneck Bill Hader, and Blu Hunt and Maisie Williams are merely solid, not remarkable. Their love story will not launch a thousand ships. That I just described 75% of the entire cast is a problem. You need good performances when the sum total of the cast exists as an ensemble of six people, and The New Mutants doesn’t have that. That said, the fundamental problems at the scripting level make it hard to fault the performers too much. You can only do so much with the dogshit material.
Hey, it’s the planet from the Fantastic Four reboot! I always wondered what happened to it.
Josh Boone doesn’t do much with it either. The film looks like the pilot to a television show I wouldn’t watch. Maybe that’s why the kids’ TV is always tuned to Buffy: I’m supposed to look at that and say “wow, that’s so cheap looking” and then be amazed that comparatively the spectacle in The New Mutants looks better. Within the one setting Boone never manages to make it feel claustrophobic or alienating. Worst of all, Boone makes it so the audience is well ahead of the plot such that all the twists and turns are telegraphed well beforehand. You know what happened to Cannonball’s dad before he tells it. What Roberto’s power is before he displays it. You can pretty easily discern what’s happening is caused by Dani’s powers. I’m not talking about knowledge from having read the comics, I’m talking about basic understanding about the grammar of film. It’s bad storytelling because the audience gains nothing from having this foreknowledge. We glean no insight. There is NO gleaning whatsoever.
WHAT! They got Antichrist Superstar himself to do monster voices??? How? Why?
I still don’t know who this is for. Fans of the property will have a number of issues with how the characters are contorted for the sake of the narrative. Horror fans will not find anything that will even cause the hairs on their arms to raise. I think it makes sense to look at The New Mutants as an attempt to filter a comic book through a YA lens. It’s not a bad idea, but the execution is lacking. Certainly this film feels more at home amongst Beautiful Creatures and The Mortal Instruments: Tom Waits’ Bone Machine than, say, X-Men: Apocalypse. It has all the earmarks of an unsuccessful YA film, including an open ending that suggests further adventures that will never happen due to poor box office returns (and in this case, corporate intransigence). Speaking of which, did you know the Essex Corporation refers to Mister Sinister and the plan was for JON HAMM to cameo as the man? We could’ve had Don fucking Draper as the 19th century’s big gay geneticist bondage Dracula. Now I’m even more pissed. Imagine seeing Sinister’s Nasty Boys on screen. Goddamnit.
I think what sums up The New Mutants best is the credits misspells the name of co-creator Bob McLeod. Nineteen years this thing was in the works and no one bothered to check the spelling. They had the time; they simply chose not to. (At least they managed to fix the mistake with the home release, but still, the man saw his own name misspelled on screen, you fucking idiots!) They could’ve fixed the tonal mishmash and they didn’t bother. They could’ve chosen to make either a coming of age story or a horror tale set in an asylum instead of trying to do both poorly. They could’ve just not made this, consigning it to the dustbin of history like Channing Tatum’s Gambit and James Franco’s Multiple Man. Choices were available and Joshua Boone and co. consistently made the wrong ones.