The New Mutants was going to be Fox’s attempt at re-invigorating the X-Men franchise, or at least, it probably was before it got bogged in production issues and a merger with Disney. The film, now released some two years later, gets dropped into cinemas whilst a pandemic is happening, which is probably a metaphor for it on some deeper level.
Native American teenager Danielle “Dani” Moonstar (Blu Hunt) witnesses the destruction of her reservation only to wake up in an unknown medical facility. Dr Reyes (Alice Braga) explains to her that they are there to understand her powers and abilities and introduces her to four other teenage mutants in similar predicaments. There’s Rahne Sinclair (Maisie Williams) who can shapeshift into a wolf, Sam Guthrie (Charlie Heaton) who can vibrate so fast he becomes a human cannonball, Roberto da Costa (Henry Zaga), son of a Brazilian mafioso who can set himself aflame, and Ilyana Rasputin (Anya Taylor-Joy), a feisty sword-wielding teleporter with a mean streak.
The teenagers have been led to believe that they are there to learn how to control their powers so as to protect themselves and others. However the fact that there’s an impenetrable force field surrounding the facility, voice activated security controls, cameras positioned everywhere, and the sole overseeing presence of Dr Reyes makes the teens suspicious. And when some of their worst fears start manifesting into reality and attacking them, they realise they have to find a way to escape.
Director Josh Boone who also co-write the screenplay with Knate Lee clearly wanted to steer this into a much darker and scarier place. Tonally it keeps jumping all over the place from teenage angsty drama, to creepy horror to superpowered prison escape. And whilst it clearly takes some pointers from better films like Carrie, The Breakfast Club or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, it never manages to stand out on its own.
The young cast do relatively well considering that this film is painfully full of dialogue and not much else. It’s wonderful that they cast a Native American actress in the lead, but Hunt is burdened with playing the confused audience proxy. And whilst we should always be championing the portrayal of and inclusion of diverse identities on screen, the queer relationship between Rahne and Dani feels forced and not given enough room to develop. In fact character development overall is left by the wayside in favour of a tight 94 minute run time.
Williams and Heaton will be recognisable faces here and get to carry the bulk of the emotional heavy lifting. Both portraying kind-hearted but traumatised souls who are trying their best to better themselves. Taylor-Joy though gets to chew through most of the dialogue with a sketchy stereotype Russian accent And even though her character is despicable courtesy of her racist bullying of Dani (she calls her Pocahontas and Standing Rock) she clearly makes for entertaining viewing because her dark past fuels her vengeful present.
The very heart of the X-Men franchise is based in “otherness” and an “us vs them” agenda. And even though this film tries to tap into that sentiment it never really digs in to make it feel like it’s part of that universe. The fleeting references to Xavier and his spandex wearing heroes. The blatant footage from Logan that’s used to prop up the evil corporation and villains of the film. The fact that it’s really only in the final act that we get to see the kids use their powers properly makes the film feel tenuously connected to that franchise at best.
Maybe Boone’s intention was to keep the superhero stuff at arms length in favour of focusing on a “haunted house” setting with a bunch of teenagers. It seems like his angle was wanting to make this more of a horror movie with some superhero thrown in. However the film never manages to fully embrace or build on the scares or horror that are teased in the trailer. Sadly it’s a passable film that will be relegated alongside the lesser X-Men films, which is probably for the best.
TWO STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The New Mutants is screening in Australian cinemas now