THE NEW MUTANTS. Young Adult X-Men Horror Story
Right from the start, I admit that going to see The New Mutants, I felt a considerable pleasure derived from several factors. Firstly, it is one of the first Hollywood productions that we have the opportunity to see in theaters during the era of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s not a film with a budget in the hundreds of millions of dollars, which, compared to other comic book adaptations, seems almost anomalous, but its entertainment aspect seems currently invaluable. Secondly, we are dealing with a production that we have been waiting for almost three years, as that was when we saw the first trailer. Numerous premiere date delays caused by planned reshoots (which supposedly never happened), Disney’s takeover of Fox, or, finally, the COVID-induced hiatus – all of this put the film’s future under a big question mark at some point. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it is the final film in the X-Men series produced by Fox, which started in 2000. A somewhat unusual conclusion to the cycle, as it is based on a story unrelated to other parts, with a set of characters previously unknown on the big screen. These new mutants carry a significant burden.
After the disaster that befell her reservation and people (including her father), teenage Danielle Moonstar wakes up in a hospital (or a place that pretends to be a hospital). She is informed by the facility’s leader – and the only staff member! – that all her loved ones died during a tornado attack, and she survived only because of her power. Danielle meets four other young residents, also mutants, but the purpose of their stay in this place is unclear. Dr. Reyes (played by the enigmatic Alice Braga) explains that they must discover their abilities and control them to move forward, but at the same time, the area is fenced with a force field, cameras are practically everywhere, observing and monitoring the mutants’ condition, and the group sessions are not very helpful. Soon, an unknown force begins to frighten all the heroes, showing them their worst nightmares.
Just from this brief description, it can be concluded that Josh Boone’s film deviates from the spectacular pomp of comic book adaptations in favor of much smaller-scale cinema and stakes. Instead of action cinema, we have horror cinema, aided by the small number of characters, their confinement in practically one building, and typical horror iconography, including eerily looking, poorly lit corridors, an angel statue in the courtyard, and even a nearby cemetery. This builds an atmosphere of unease, though not necessarily fear. Also, later jump scares are rather ineffective and don’t scare anyone. It could be seen as the director’s failure if his film were only a horror. However, when the aforementioned cemetery serves as the background for one of the most intimate scenes in the entire film, one can conclude that Boone is interested in a completely different kind of cinema.
The director’s earlier film, The Fault in Our Stars, was a well-received youth melodrama, and his new work is also in the spirit of YA cinema, emphasizing young heroes, their dilemmas, first loves, etc. The fantastic plot primarily serves to depict the challenging process of character maturation. Thus, The New Mutants is closer to productions like “Twilight” than an X-Men movie. This is by no means a criticism, just an attempt to specify the target audience for Boone’s work. Not necessarily for fans of comic book cinema, not very much for horror enthusiasts either, although elements of both genres are strongly present in the plot. However, if I were to point out a group that will leave the cinema most satisfied, it would be teenagers who can identify with characters struggling with the role of religion in their lives (especially in the context of their own sexuality), fear their first sexual experiences, and can’t find their place in reality.
Among such characters, we have the aforementioned Danielle (making her cinema debut, Blu Hunt), blaming herself for her father’s death and the fact that she survived as the only one, and the Scottish Rahne (Maisie Williams, Arya from Game of Thrones), whose Catholic faith makes her see something sinful in her powers. Quiet American Sam (Charlie Heaton, Stranger Things) and wealthy Brazilian Roberto (Henry Zaga, Thirteen Reasons Why) cannot shake off the guilt for the deaths of their loved ones, but while the former wants to control his abilities, the latter has no intention of using them at all. There is also Illyana (Anya Taylor-Joy), a boisterous Russian, boasting about the number of people she has killed but, in reality, still afraid of childhood nightmares. The dynamics between all five of them work quite well, mainly because Boone and Knate Lee’s screenplay gives each of these characters a strong emotional baggage. This has always been the domain of the best X-Men movies – characters who had to deal with the fear of their own nature and the prejudices of others. Here, especially Rahne’s storyline deserves attention, most resembling Nightcrawler’s character from X2 in its difficult relationship with religiosity.
However, all this lacks commitment, energy, depth. Only the emerging feelings between Danielle and Rahne are well executed; the other relationships are undefined or quickly abandoned (the mix of desire and fear from Roberto to Illyana eventually comes down to playful slogans). The actors help, very good in their roles, although I must admit that my attention was drawn mainly to the accents duel between the English, Williams, Taylor-Joy, and Heaton. From the moment when fantasy cinema begins to dominate over youth customs, there is no time to close the latter with the proper code. It all comes down to shock therapy, thanks to which the main characters will be able to deal with their very real and dangerous fears. The ending should satisfy superhero fans, as the screen is then colorful and lively, with much credit to Peter Deming’s excellent cinematography.
It is surprising for a film that marks the end of Fox’s 20-year adventure with mutants. Of course, it was not supposed to be like that, but it happened differently. It is difficult to evaluate it through this prism, and it may not be my target audience for The New Mutants. My assessment should, therefore, be a result of what I think about the film and how I would perceive it if I were the age of its characters.