REVIEW – ‘The New Mutants’ is an uninspired bore

You have to feel for everyone involved with The New Mutants, which has experienced one of the most difficult journeys to the big screen in recent history. After shooting wrapped in September 2017, the film has seen its release date bounce around several times over the last three years. First, it was April 2018, then February 2019, then August 2019, then April 2020, before a global pandemic saw it shelved indefinitely. Most of us assumed the film may never see the light of day.

During all these release changes, co-writer/director Josh Boone was also forced to contend with appeasing his new bosses at Disney after their acquisition of 20th Century Fox in early 2019. Planned reshoots were scrapped and, by all accounts, the film has seen extensive recuts and retooling. At long last, it’s finally being dumped into theatres this week in an environment where going to the movies is still a risky venture in most of the world. Is this film worth the wait of three years? Or worth risking catching a deadly disease to see? No. No, it is not.

A film that feels like something from another time (and not just by virtue of it being delayed for several years), The New Mutants echoes films of the 80s and 90s and pointlessly rehashes elements from far stronger movies of similar genres. Not quite a comic book movie, not quite a psychological horror-thriller, and certainly not a coming-of-age tale, The New Mutants doesn’t appear to know what it is and it’s unlikely you will either. When all is said and done, it’s an uninspired bore that proves to be a tedious experience.

After witnessing the total destruction of her reservation by an unseen force, Native American teen Danielle Moonstar (Blu Hunt) awakens in a sterile facility. Handcuffed to a hospital bed and isolated in a room by herself, Dani is soon visited by Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga), who informs the confused youngster she’s been sent to a psychiatric institution that helps young mutants come to terms with their individual superpowers.

It’s not long before she’s introduced to her fellow teenage patients, who have all suffered equally traumatic pasts caused by their out-of-control powers. There’s Rahne Sinclair (Maisie Williams), a kind-hearted Scot with the ability to morph into a wolf; Roberto da Costa (Henry Zaga), a Brazillian playboy whose raging hormones lead to fiery eruptions; Sam Guthrie (Charlie Heaton), a tormented Kentucky boy with the power of lightning speed; and Illyana Rasputin (the ever-reliable Anya Taylor-Joy), a tempestuous sword-wielding Russian minx with the ability to teleport and a nasty attitude to boot.

Still completely unaware of her own unique powers, Dani attempts to work with Dr. Reyes in uncovering her mutant abilities and how to control them. But something is amiss about the facility, particularly given the entire grounds are surrounded by an impenetrable forcefield that forbids the patients from ever leaving. When strange incidents begin to torment Dani and her newfound friends, the group is forced to confront terrifying hallucinations and defeat their greatest fears that are literally coming back to haunt them.

The inherent problem with The New Mutants is a total lack of substance or depth. It’s little more than one basic idea stretched into a 94-minute film that feels like it runs for three hours. The film commits the cardinal cinematic sin of being downright boring and frustratingly slow. After a lively and genuinely thrilling opening prologue, Boone grinds the pacing to a halt and barely ever attempts to recover any speed until a hastily-constructed climax filled with a calamity of ridiculous CGI effects that are genuinely unsightly to behold.

The film ultimately feels more like an extended pilot episode to a show that we’re acutely aware won’t make it to a full series. While it’s clear The New Mutants was intended to be the launch of a new X-Men spin-off saga, it simply doesn’t do enough to stand on its own feet first before foolishly attempting to set up a franchise that we now know will never happen. Boone introduces his players by way of a group therapy session where we learn the names and powers of the entire gang in one lazy gulp. With only the barest of introductions, we’re immediately asked to care for these new characters, despite barely knowing anything about them.

Every member of the cast genuinely tries their utmost to offer some depth to their paper-thin characters, but the hapless writing from Boone and Knate Lee robs them all of any opportunity to flesh the roles out from beyond the page. The narrative is driven by Dani, but Hunt is sadly handed an undeveloped, passive character that suffers from a penchant for nauseating dialogue and a lack of any discernable personality. Dani is clearly meant to be the Rogue of this story, but without the engaging acuity that made her such a compelling protagonist. It’s a refreshing thrill to see a Native American female at the centre of a major film, but Hunt isn’t really given the chance to truly shine.

Hunt’s chemistry with Williams is charming, but their relationship feels awfully rushed and isn’t given the screentime it truly needs to flourish into something organic. Still, it always has to be celebrated that we have a genuine queer relationship in a mainstream studio film, particularly in the comic book adaptation genre. The introduction to Rahne’s queerness, however, is about as shrewd as a sledgehammer, with the adolescent seen watching an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer featuring everyone’s favourite queer witch couple, Willow and Tara. Subtle, right?

It’s always a pleasure to watch the wildly talented Taylor-Joy, and she manages to steal focus throughout the entire film. It’s just a damn shame she’s given the generic “mean girl” character whose cruelty is displayed through genuine racist behaviour towards Dani. At various points in the film, Ilyana calls “Pocahontas” and “Standing Rock,” and, while the character eventually softens, she’s never forced to reconcile with her heinous early behaviour. Still, Taylor-Joy is the only member of the cast bringing energy to the film by having fun with her role, even if her Russian accent is woefully sketchy at best.

An adaptation in the barest of ways, Boone has taken great liberties with the source material, especially by moving the action from the 80s to the 90s and essentially plagiarising elements of the plots of films like It and Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. There’s nothing new about a bunch of youngsters literally facing the physical manifestations of their darkest fears, but the surprise plot twist as to the identity of the “villain” bringing those fears to life can be seen from a mile away.

While The New Mutants is largely separated from the rest of the X-Men franchise, there are references dotted throughout that hint at Boone’s possible intentions to bring his cast into the larger universe previously owned by 20th Century Fox. When Disney took control, it’s clear he’s been forced to downplay those plans (although, bafflingly, actual footage from 2017’s Logan remains in a bizarre vision that genuinely makes no sense), leaving the film stranded as a stand-alone feature with literally no future, despite being loaded with setups that now feel like a complete waste of time.

At one point in this film, we briefly see the iconic “Hush” episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer playing on a television in the background, with the titular heroine battling against the terrifying ghouls known as The Gentlemen. I have no idea if this is some form of meta-reference (Ilyana’s tormentors look achingly similar to the Buffy villains) or just proof that Boone is a fan of the show. To be honest, it just made me want to continue watching that instead of suffering through the remainder of this film.

It’s clear Disney finally made the decision to dump The New Mutants in cinemas in the middle of a pandemic so it can be forgotten about as quickly as possible and they can commence their own plans for the entire X-Men franchise. What initially began as a chance to do something bold has spun into another disappointing comic book adaptation without the confidence to truly reach the heights it could have. For all its ambitious intentions, The New Mutants falls flat on its face in its execution.

It’s simply not scary enough to be a horror film and it’s far too dull to be considered a superhero movie. And, without any shred of character development, there’s no element of coming-of-age drama to be found here. Even the worst films of the X-Men franchise still registered some level of impact on your memory, but everything here is so tragically forgettable. Blame it on the release delays or the corporate restructuring, if you must, but this entire experiment seemed doomed from the start. At least now we can all move on with our lives.

Distributor: 20th Century Studios/Disney
Cast: Maisie Williams, Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Heaton, Alice Braga, Blu Hunt, Henry Zaga, Adam Beach, Thomas Kee, Colbi Gannett
Director: Josh Boone
Producers: Simon Kinberg, Karen Rosenfelt, Lauren Shuler Donner
Screenplay: Josh Boone, Knate Lee
Cinematography: Peter Deming
Production Design: Molly Hughes
Costume Design: Leesa Evans
Music: Mark Isham

Editing: Robb Sullivan, Matthew Rundell, Andrew Buckland
Running Time: 94 minutes
Release Date: 3rd September 2020 (Australia)