Sitting alone in an empty theater on opening weekend wearing my N95 mask because I trust no one, not even myself, The New Mutants was the first movie I saw when theaters opened up again after the great lockdown. Nearly two months later watching it again, it may in fact be the last movie I get to see in theaters this year.
Maybe because this movie was the last in the era of 20th Century Fox X-Men movies, or because it was stuck in production hell for almost 3 years before finally being released at the height of a global pandemic, but given it’s cursed status having The New Mutants come out this year of all years seems oddly fitting.
A bear walks into an asylum. . .
The movie starts in a blizzard of chaos and confusion as our young protagonist, Danielle “Dani” Moonstar (Blu Hunt) is awakened in the middle of the night to some unknown terror ripping apart the reservation where her and her father live. Dani’s father hides her in a hollow tree right before he’s killed by the unseen force and his body unceremoniously dumped at Dani’s feet. Running in fear though the woods gets Dani knocked unconscious and when she awakens she’s cuffed to a hospital bed with a werewolf looking down on her, which isn’t nearly as scary as it sounds.
Dani is quickly introduced to her new doctor, Dr. Cecilia Reyes (Alice Braga) and her fellow mutant prisoners, I mean patients, Illyana Rasputin (Anya Taylor-Joy), Sam Guthrie (Charlie Heaton), Rahne Sinclair (Maisie Williams) and Roberto da Costa (Henry Zaga). Dani learns they’re all being kept at the hospital against their will for their own good, of course, until they can learn to control their powers.
While Dani’s own powers are something of a mystery, it becomes quickly clear that all the teenage mutants have caused some sort of tragic death when their powers first manifested. While there is budding romance and a few instances of casual racism, in general there’s less of the typical teenage angst you would expect with a group of super powered teens left almost entirely up to their own devices. That might be because everyone comes with a pre-packaged traumatic backstory they’re busy trying to work though. The nightmare visions that start plaguing the teens when Dani arrives also keep everyone a bit too preoccupied for the usual teenage drama.
Will friendship help them to survive their prison? It’s an X-Men movie, what do you think?
Fear. Shame. Self Destruction.
A group of powerful teenage mutant killers trapped in a mental hospital with deadly powers they can’t fully control yet should be an awesome setup for a horror movie, right? Unfortunately, this one falls pretty short in the horror category, though it isn’t for lack of trying. The theatrical release poster at least is on point.
All the charred corpses, smiley faced Silent Hill-like monsters, undead priests, and cool looking nightmare demon bears didn’t help lend much in the way of a spooky atmosphere. If anything this movie should come with a slew of trigger warnings for suicide, child abuse, self harm, PTSD, etc., that should be the real horrors experienced by the teens, except that no weight is ever given to any of these issues. A character might be ready to jump to their death or having a panic attack because of past CSA one minute, and the next, they’re cutting through an army of Slendermen like nothing is wrong.
The movie leaves almost no time for grief or real reflection on the horrors they’re experiencing, and by that account, not much time for character growth either. The best parts of the movie are clearly the quiet moments between the characters when they get a chance to actually slow down for a night and talk about their pasts. It’s a shame too, because these characters and their backstories are interesting.
Rahne probably gets the most fleshed out in terms of her personality since her mutant power (turning into an adorable werewolf), backstory, and sexuality is tied up with her religious upbringing. Her budding relationship with Dani is one of the few things that gives the movie a real heart, and it’s a great positive representation for young LGBT teens. Sam’s visible torment over the people he’s killed is another real moment of feeling in a movie that’s tonally all over the place, and Charlie Heaton (Stranger Things, Color Out of Space) does an amazing job with what little he’s given. Dani’s Native American heritage does play a part in her story, but mostly in a ‘there’s a Native American legend about this’ type of way.
Despite being a horror movie veteran at this point, Anya Taylor-Joy (The VVitch, Glass, Split, Thoroughbreds) through no fault of her own, fairs less well with the character of Illyana. Even though she’s supposed to be the crazy dangerous one, she mostly comes across as racist and bitchy to the point you wonder why the others bother to put up with her. Dr. Reyes is barely given a chance to have an emotion since she’s too busy delivering exposition, but for a mutant that creates force fields maybe that could be considered a personality trait. Still, it would have been nice to know if she really is a monster, or simply a product of the same circumstances Dani and the others find themselves in.
At the end of a very empty second viewing of the movie, it’s really the sense of missed potential that sticks with you more than anything else when leaving the theater after watching The New Mutants. Despite that, the movie does have a lot going for it. This is very much a female character driven movie; Dani, Rahne, Illyana and Dr. Reyes are the real forces that propel the plot forward. No offence to the very likeable Sam and Roberto, but they were just along for the ride. The casual, yet not at all subtle, chemistry between Dani and Rahne is such a nice change of pace from the forced heteronormativity of most horror, or pretty much any movie really, romances. That’s why this movie is, if nothing else, rated Horror LGBT Positive by me.
Final Girl Thoughts
While I would recommend seeing it for the interesting characters and all around good performances, you can probably wait the 2 weeks or so for it to come to VOD or Disney+ instead of risking your life by heading to the few remaining open theaters in the country to see it if you haven’t already. Enjoyable? Sure. Would I want to see these characters again under different circumstances that don’t involve a pandemic? Absolutely, although by the time they get a second movie out they may have to call it The Midlife Crisis Mutants. A solid 3 out of 5 Cthulhu. A good effort at something a little different.