The New Mutants
The infamous film stuck in development hell finally is released
Many times, films are stuck in development hell for a variety of reasons, be it reshoots or rewrites, a studio’s lack of confidence in a financial hit, or creative conflicts. However, rarely has a film been as unlucky as The New Mutants (2020). Originally completed in 2017, but forced into reshoots for a summer 2018 release, the film has been bunted around because of the Disney-Fox merger, calendar competition, and, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. Many thought the film would be shelved indefinitely or dropped on a streaming service quietly. Thankfully, the film has been granted a wide-release and was my very welcome (but cautious) return to the movie theater since the worldwide health pandemic began.
The New Mutants takes place in the X-Men universe, and as such includes a set of characters with superpowers or “mutations.” In this particular film we follow Dani (Blu Hunt) a teenager who after a tragedy at her Native American reservation wakes up in a facility akin to an asylum. There she finds other teenagers with seeming powers being overseen by Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga), who is attempting to have them control their abilities. However, as Dani arrives a certain unsettling presence comes as well.
The characters, like most superheroes, are crafted and motivated by a horrible tragic event in their past. However, by catching these characters in their early years, we viewers see them still struggling to channel the emotions of their trauma to good use. Thus, we don’t have the clear-headedness of the likes of Batman or Spider-Man, nor even those of supervillains. This makes for a fascinating psychological look at the characters, seeing as they could still tip one of two ways in the spectrum of superhero morality. As with any good sci-fi film, the supernatural elements are well utilized to comment on larger aspects. In this case, there is a clear exploration of puberty and a search of identity, specifically when being dragged down by traumatic pasts that our characters are unwilling to face.
This particular focus, as well as writer-director Josh Boone’s choice to have a more horror feel to the film, make The New Mutants feel fresher than other films in its genre. The X-Men franchise has learned how to evolve with the times, letting go of its multi-connected universe in favor of doing stronger stand-alone pieces. This has allowed them to produce such satisfying hits such as Deadpool (2016) and Logan (2017); and has been copied to a certain extent by DC and Warner Bros. who chose to make vaguely connected Joker (2019), Wonder Woman (2017), etc. The New Mutants thus follows closely with this new successful formula to offer an alternative to the Marvel Cinematic Universe formula (though of course by the time of its release, New Mutantsis a Disney property). It is in this horror spin that The New Mutants shows where it came into conflict with creatives and executives. The film gives off a sense that it never fully embraces this genre; there are certain spooky scenes in the film, but they seem to be incredibly rare and anecdotal. The PG-13 rating seems to constrain the film too rigidly, so that it isn’t even able to fully imitate its clear inspirations of Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). In sacrificing for a larger share of the film-going market, the film also gave up its tone.
It’s curious to see how the casting of this film was made. Back in 2017, all these actors were up-and-coming. And while many are still at the top of their game in 2020, some’s stardom has slightly diminished. Protagonist Blu Hunt seemed to be the weakest link of the lot, faltering against major co-star Maisie Williams, who is very compelling as the wolfish Rahne. Having both actresses frequent the scene together, made the contrast between the two stand out as well. While Hunt is by no means a terrible actress, she was incredibly bland emotionally. The other standout, Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays the arrogant Illyana, is magnetic enough if leaning a bit too heavily into caricature territory. Illyana later shows a complex and intriguing backstory, but Taylor-Joy seemed to be a bit misdirected in exaggerating her Russian accent instead of finding the nuance we’ve seen from her in such films as Thoroughbreds (2017), Marrowbone (2017), and Emma. (2020). The surprise standout performance for me was from the main adult in the cast: Alice Braga. Braga has proven to be a very capable actress even as a shallower character in City of God (2002). In The New Mutants Braga is meant to symbolize the authority figure that clashes against our teenage characters; however, her performance brought such sympathy and humanity to Dr. Reyes that you find her the most compelling character in the film.
It was therefore incredibly disappointing for this film to completely throw away its more unique concepts and options. Instead of having the built-up characters have a showdown, this is shoved aside in favor of a giant CGI battle. This makes the final battle lose a lot of the stakes that an alternative confrontation (to which the film seemed to be building towards) would have had. The showdown feels like such a superhero cliché at this point that it was a huge dip and letdown for viewers and reeked as part of the reshoots/studio interference.
In the end, The New Mutants proves to have a more satisfying ending in its production life than its narrative one. The film itself promises much and has a very intriguing build-up, using its symbolism to comment effectively on its picked themes and issues. Some strong performances help bring a big portion of emphatic weight to the film, but it is somewhat derailed by a messy, predictable, and unexciting finale.