Do these troubled teens make it out of the haunted house alive, or is Fox’s final X-Men film a cinematic horror?
After years in production hell, a change in studios, and being released into a pandemic, New Mutants was always going to have a rough go of it. It didn’t help that critics pulled a mean-girl clique on these mutant misfits. Despite having the dubious honor of being on two different “most anticipated movies of year 20xx“, I didn’t have enough steam to brave the rona to see The New Mutants. Now as we wind down 2020 and catch up on our movie leftovers, I try to answer the question: how bad is it?
The New Mutants (2020)
Five teenage mutants — Mirage/Danielle (Blu Hunt), Wolfsbane/Rahne (Maisie Williams), Cannonball/Sam (Charlie Heaton), Sunspot/Roberto (Henry Zaga) and Magik/Illyana (Anya Taylor-Joy) — undergo treatments at a secret institution that will cure them of their dangerous powers. Invited by Dr. Cecilia Reyes to share their stories, their memories soon turn into terrifying realities as they start to question why they’re being held and who’s trying to destroy them.
Director Josh Boone wanted to make TNM a pretty straight horror movie, but Fox Studios wanted something that would play well with the rebooted X-Men franchise. When X-Men – Apocalypse tanked and IT Part 1 crushed the box office, Fox pulled a 180 and asked Boone to go back to a young adult horror film, with as much as 50% of the film needing to be re-shot. Then Disney bought out Fox, and all of the re-shoots went up in the air. Finally, with Disney sniping at it all the way, Boone got to push out a New Mutants he originally wanted…but we’ll never know what bits of the final creation came from which cadaver.
What Went Wrong?
- Frankenstein’s Monster. All of the studio haggling, re-shooting, and tone shifting that bedeviled New Mutants shows. The film does manage to have a coherent through line, but lots of side paths crowd the lane. Boone got inspiration from Night on Elm Street: The Dream Warriors and other sources, and obviously Fox wanted IT plus a dash of the grittiness that made Logan and Deadpool such hits. Who knows what Disney wanted (other than it to fail!) You wind up with lots of elements that just don’t mesh, or that might work but are never developed.
- Sleepaway Camp. To tell the truth, New Mutants is kinda horny. That works in an 80’s slasher flick, but gets real squicky for TNM. The beginning of the film continually references the fact that young mutants get their powers at around 13 years old, and lots of time is spent on our heroes having just got their powers. So…it’s heavily implied that we’ve got a gaggle of tweens here. Even the older teens, Illyana and Roberto, come off as hard pressed to buy smokes. Constantly seeing them in shower scenes or sexy late night swims gives the whole proceedings a leer that is more unsettling than the dream monsters!
- Magik the Crappening. Illyana (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a complete bitch. She’s also the most bankable character/star attached to the project. Boone uses her constant (racist) abuse of Mirage/Danielle to build sympathy for Mirage and to create a mystery as to why Illyana’s such a dysfunctional brat. The problem comes when Boone suddenly pivots to trying to get you to root for Illyana as a badass when the climax needs mutant powered action.
Kudos for Taylor-Joy totally leaning into the script and playing a jerkass, but it really gives the movie yet another unpleasant taste to savor.
What Went Right?
- Dream Works. While it may feel like a bit of an IT clone, having our youngsters being attacked by their worst fears is still effective. Each of the characters has a suitably creepy secret fear, and Boone really goes all out to bring those fears to life. While the more surreal dreams provide plenty of jumps (Illyana’s horrific “smiling men” are straight out of a Channel Zero creepy-pasta), the low-key fears (Cannonball trapped in a coal mine with zombie miners) do a great job of building constant dread. They’re effective in both being scary and in getting to the heart of each character’s personality and powers.
- Tender Moments. The budding relationship between Rahne and Danielle is not handled tactfully by the script – it’s pretty ham-fisted – but Williams and Hunt have a great rapport on film. They manage to take poorly written treacle and actually make you feel empathy for the characters. The scenes where the two of them are together are pretty much the emotional core of the drama. They form the nucleus that other characters like Sam and later Roberto can attach to and let their guarded teen personas drop.
- Effective Effects. You’d think that such a muddled production mess and the acquisition of the property by a hostile studio would have led to the films effects budget getting slashed. Instead, it seems that the film really went big on the CG and practical effects. The costumes, monster suits, and gore are all top-notch.
The CG pops, from small bits like Magik’s teleportation effect, all the way to the giant demonic bear that haunts Mirage. I actually think they were more polished than many of the CG bugbears that showed up in IT Part 2.
How Bad Is…The New Mutants?
The New Mutants, ironically, lives in a bit of a limbo. Much like the film’s troubled production history, it’s tugged in two directions. The main thrust of the story and the film-making that supports it is effective, even good in places. The bits that feel tacked on or remnants of another draft are pretty lousy, and lots of questionable character design elements drag it down.
Despite all of that, it’s not an unwatchable mess. The bright spots help you get through the rough spots, and there’s enough of a unifying vision to make it a decent experience.