A group of teens locked in an isolated asylum struggle to come to terms with the devastating powers of their inner powers in The New Mutants, a diverting thriller that breaks from the traditional superhero mold to deliver something a little more interesting – for about two-thirds of its running time, anyway.
More than three years after shooting began, The New Mutants is finally hitting cinemas worldwide following delays that included the usual tinkering, the sale of parent studio Fox to Disney, and a global pandemic. By the end of post-production, additional reshoots were no longer possible as the young cast had aged out of their roles.
Perhaps surprisingly given that history, the resulting movie manages to present a cohesive narrative for most of the ride. Unlike a Fantastic Four or Suicide Squad, the troubled production hasn’t been cut into something totally incomprehensible.
Unsurprisingly, it all turns sour during the final act and sinks under the weight of the usual CGI maelstrom that these movies are obligated to culminate with.
Until that point, however, The New Mutants couldn’t be more different than the typical superhero fare; written and directed by Josh Boone (The Fault in Our Stars), it comes across more along the lines of The Breakfast Club meets Nightmare on Elm Street (and in particular the third and best film in that franchise, Dream Warriors).
New Mutants centers on young Dani Moonstar (Blu Hunt), who wakes up chained to a hospital bed in a creepy facility after a mysterious event wipes out her Native American community.
There, she meets the kindly Dr. Reyes (Alica Braga), who helpfully explains the plot of the movie: Dani survived the event because she has mutant powers, she’s in a special facility to help mutants come to terms with their powers, and if she follows all the rules she’ll be able to one day return to the outside world. Nothing sinister at all.
Dani soon meets the other guests at the secret facility: brash Russian export Illyana (Anya Taylor-Joy), who can teleport to other dimensions at will but is locked up against her will for reasons of story convenience; Kentucky miner Sam (Stranger Things‘ Charlie Heaton), who can wildly propel himself throughout the air, Brazilian rich kid Berto (Henry Zaga), who displays some kind of vague fire powers, and Irish Rahne (Game of Thrones‘ Maisie Williams), a kindred spirit who can turn herself into a wolf.
As Dani gets to know her surroundings and her new friends, nightmarish visions of zombies, smiley-face killers, and (scariest of all) Catholic priests descend upon each of them; New Mutants fashions itself as a kind of teen horror movie, but never quite pulls off the scares: real-deal chills are a little out of reach for a film where characters can summon mystical swords from other dimensions to slice their way through the terror.
But that’s all right, because the coming-of-age stuff between the kids actually does work. New Mutants’ calling card is its excellent young cast and their well-written characters, and all five of them really do make a lasting impression. The scenes between Rhane and Dani, and their evolving friendship, are especially and genuinely heartfelt.
And then these nicely-drawn characters fight off rather poorly-drawn CGI creatures for about half an hour during increasingly incomprehensible scenes that render what was an interesting and innovative approach to the superhero genre into mindless superhero action.
But while The New Mutants isn’t a total success, it’s a far better note for the Fox X-Men films to end on than last year’s risible Dark Phoenix, even as a self-contained feature that does its own thing. Opening against Tenet this weekend and still in the midst of a global pandemic, New Mutants will quickly disappear into the void; that’s a shame, as it deserved better.
For fans of Marvel, New Mutants includes the briefest of mentions of the X-Men, but no ties to either the Fox series of films or Disney’s MCU. No sequence after the credits, either.