If you’ve never seen a teen movie, a superhero movie, an asylum-set psychological thriller, Nightmare on Elm Street or a single episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, then perhaps The New Mutants will be something of an eye-opening experience.
But for most of the planet — that is, the portion of the planet able to see this new release from Disney’s 20th Century Studios in a movie theater — and especially for the film’s likely target audience, Mutants will provide an eye-rolling case of déjà vu.
Generic and, at its best, straining to be heartfelt, director Josh Boone’s adaptation of the Marvel spinoff comic series is a Marvel movie spinoff in its own right, making vague references to the X-Men franchise but attempting to stand on its own. Unfortunately, it rarely does, even if the film’s trio of young and tough female leads manages to give your typically male-dominated genre something of a feminine twist.
Shot in 2017 and subjected to a lengthy postproduction period that included plans for reshoots, the sale of studio 20th Century Fox to Disney, several postponed release dates, including one this past April due to the coronavirus pandemic, and a domestic release finally slated for Friday in a country still debating whether going to the movies is safe at all, you can’t say The New Mutants has had an easy run thus far.
To further complicate matters, Disney did not provide screening links or a COVID-safe screening room for U.S. critics, some of whom are now refusing to review it. (In my case, I saw the film in a movie theater in central Paris on the morning the French Prime Minister announced that masks would now be mandatory in cinemas. Most people wore masks at the screening — protective masks, not X-Men masks.)
Since it was made three years ago, The New Mutants already feels like it belongs in another, perhaps more innocent, epoch. More specifically, it feels like it was made sometime in the 1980s or ’90s and that it was inspired, along with the above sources, by the proto-high-school movie classic The Breakfast Club — that is, if the latter were set in a semi-state-of-the-art asylum where five adolescent mutants from a variety of backgrounds undergo group psychotherapy as they try to master their new powers.
Told through the point of view of Dani Moonstar (Blu Hunt), a Native American who survived a traumatic disaster and then wakes up strapped to her bed in a remote psychiatric institution headed by the mysterious Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga), the story follows Dani as she learns she’s not alone in this strange science fair experiment.
Her fellow inmates include Illyana Rasputin (Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch), a Russian with teleportation abilities and a bad attitude; Rahne Sinclair (Maisie Williams, Game of Thrones), a Scottish girl with fierce animal instincts but a good heart; Brazilian pretty boy Roberto da Costa (Henry Zaga, co-starring in Boone’s new series based on Stephen King’s The Stand), who’s too hot to handle; and Sam Guthrie (Charlie Heaton, Stranger Things), a good ol’ Kentucky boy who talks like he was raised by a jug of moonshine and has the power to project himself at lightning speeds.
All these characters hail from the very first The New Mutants graphic novel (created by Chris Claremont and Bob McLeod) published back in 1982, and Boone, along with co-writer Knate Lee, allows us to witness their origin stories as recurring nightmares that happen inside the hospital — nightmares that, like Freddy Krueger, can become real.
He also gives us a heavy dose of teen angst, with Braga’s Dr. Reyes reminding us all-too clearly that “mutation most often occurs in puberty.” But more often than not, their angst takes on the bland flavor of an Afterschool Special, or perhaps a Disney movie, including a scene where the gang drugs their doctor to sleep and then throws a dance party with the kind of faceless rock music you hear at The Cheesecake Factory.
Much is left unexplained as to why the kids are there and whom exactly Dr. Reyes works for — the characters briefly mention Professor X’s mutant academy — yet there’s something so generic about the setup and situations that the intrigue only carries us so far. Even the handful of twists meant to be vaguely new, such as a same-sex love affair between two of the heroines, wind up feeling familiar, which is perhaps why Boone actually inserts a clip from an episode of Buffy showing the same thing.
The movie isn’t even as scary as it could be, a fact that could be explained by the need to maintain a PG-13 rating, but in the end we’re only reminded of recent teen horror ensembles like It that worked much better. A potentially terrifying sequence where the kids are pursued by a horde of fanged monsters is upended by the fact that the monsters are all wearing what can best be described as disco shirts, each of them buttoned halfway to the top. (Are they meant to be Eurotrash from hell?)
At best, Boone coaxes good performances from his cast, especially the troika of Blu, Taylor-Joy and Williams, who add layers of panache and emotion to their characters while kicking ass at the same time. Per Wikipedia, The New Mutants is meant to be the last entry in the X-Men series — one of the film’s producers, Simon Kinberg, directed the rather disastrously received Dark Phoenix, which came out last year — but you could easily see these three young women joining Marvel Studio’s growing gamut of superheroines. It’s just too bad the movie that launched them doesn’t have the same impact. As far as the mutant franchise goes, it never makes its last stand.
Production companies: 20th Century Studios, Marvel Entertainment, Kinberg Genre, Sunswept Entertainment, in association with TSG Entertainment
Distributor: 20th Century Studios
Cast: Maisie Williams, Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Heaton, Alice Braga, Blu Hunt, Henry Zaga, Adam Beach, Thomas Kee, Colbi Gannett
Director: Josh Boone
Screenwriters: Josh Boone, Knate Lee
Producers: Simon Kinberg, Karen Rosenfelt, Lauren Shuler Donner
Executive producers: Stan Lee, Michele Imperato Stabile
Director of photography: Peter Deming
Production designer: Molly Hughes
Costume designer: Leesa Evans
Editors: Robb Sullivan, Matthew Rundell, Andrew Buckland
Composer: Mark Snow
Casting director: Carolyn Pickman
Visual effects supervisor: Olivier Dumont
Rated PG-13, 94 minutes