The New Mutants (2020)

Dir. Josh Boone. Starring Blu Hunt, Anya Taylor-Joy, Maisie Williams

This one has such a tortured production history that it’s basically a Terry Gilliam movie. Goodness knows there’s something genuinely interesting about taking The New Mutants, which featured some of the most jawdropping art of any mainstream comic book I can name, and which features teenagers with some honest-to-goodness hang-ups and strange powers. More than that, there’s such opportunity in adapting a book that has basically been left alone while movie studios frack comic book IP for all they can get. There is possibility in a New Mutants movie in the way that there simply isn’t for another X-Men movie, and you can tell that Boone and co-writer Knate Lee are thinking along those lines. (The only Generation X I’d be interested in seeing a movie about is one with M and Chamber in it.) Superhero movies have not, by and large, gotten much into horror, and even though one would argue that The New Mutants doesn’t really get into horror either, the ground is laid for it. Some creepy images here and there, filming where Martin Scorsese shot Shutter Island, using the still fecund setting of an insane asylum as a way to grow closed-in fear.

Dani Moonstar (Hunt) and Illyana Rasputin (Taylor-Joy) both have superpowers which parasitically fill people’s brains. Rahne Sinclair (Maisie Williams) is essentially a werewolf. The boys, Sam Guthrie (Charlie Heaton) and Bobby da Costa (Henry Zaga), lack the requisite powers to do horror with, alas, but the movie is not really about them anyway. There’s also a real effort made to get actors who either are teenagers or who look like teeangers. Hunt and Williams look like actual children; the other three look like you could have plucked them out of high school or a freshman dorm room without too much suspension of disbelief. This is, to the best of my purposely limited knowledge, something that the Spider-Man movies are trying to emphasize. Miles Morales of Spider-Verse is a kid, and Tom Holland is baby-faced enough that he might be a kid indefinitely. It’s definitely not something that the X-Men movies have done much since the first one, when Anna Paquin was a lone teenager surrounded by Hugh Jackman and two Bond girls, and yet the roots of the material are in awkward teenagers biting off more of the world-saving business than they should be able to chew. Borrowing from the New Mutants comics is, in short, about as close as anyone can get to comic book tabula rasa in the movies anymore without going completely off the deep end of obscurity. It makes this movie absolutely maddening. Imagine being a developer who had free rein to build anything you wanted, and you chose to build another strip mall.

I don’t usually want to rewrite movies I’ve seen, but The New Mutants, which is more like a pilot for a television show than it is a well-constructed, freestanding picture, practically demands it. The decision to place the kids in this insane asylum, watched over by the forcefield-generating Cecilia Reyes (Alice Braga), who is basically shepherding all of them to ultimately become trained killers for the mysterious-not-really-mysterious Essex Corporation, is an example of what it looks like when your auteur falls in love with the elevator pitch. We don’t really gain all that much from watching the kids each face their fears that Dani is accidentally projecting on all of them. (Her mutant power is a real doozy; she can create projections of people’s worst fears which have the power to harm but which are not strictly speaking real. It’s been out there for nearly four decades now, and I don’t think it’s gotten any less insane.) The film makes it clear immediately that these projections came from Dani, but still makes us watch four different sequences of each of the other kids getting freaked out by the combination memory and terror that no one in the movie can identify the source of. There’s an enormous lag in this movie which is hardly compensated for by, like, Sam remembering how bad the coal mines were. Part of it is the editing, which is clunky, but more of it is this torpid screenplay which struggles to get off the ground. A foggy opening takes us to the asylum; the asylum turns out to be full of some taciturn kids; “here’s the new girl why don’t you show her around” hasn’t exactly gotten fresher as a first half-hour. The greatest sin here, for my money, is in putting the kids in this asylum in the first place. If it’s not going to be scary in there (and it’s not any scarier than a prestige horror movie), then the point of doing that is lost. It does not turn out to be a great way to characterize anyone. A lack of information is not the same as mystery, and the fact that no one on screen actually finds out who Mister Sinister is means that we’re well short of solving the mystery of why they’re there at all by the end of the movie.

I couldn’t help but think that this movie would simply be off to a better start if it had Charles Xavier in it, regardless of the baggage that having to cast yet another one of those would bring to The New Mutants. Braga is such an empty hole of a villain, or at least a sidekick next to an absent hole of a villain, that she is about as useless as Heaton or Zaga are to creating tension or interest. The irony of the Reyes character is that she seems to be looking out for the kids, but isn’t looking out for them at all. When things get really bad in the asylum, she is helpless to protect them. Say what you will about Charles Xavier (and there are a lot of flaws in the character as he’s presented in the movies, let alone how he’s presented in the comics), but this movie is so much more interesting if you assume that he is looking out for the kids but is also, for some reason, helpless to protect them. There’s turmoil in the idea of a safe place run by a safe person being violated; this is the root of every home invasion movie, and maybe Boone simply didn’t have that kind of horror in mind when he was making The New Mutants, but I know I was way more freaked out by Straw Dogs than I was by this brand-name It Follows. An unsafe place becoming more unsafe simply does not bring the kind of conflict that the movie needs, and so it tries to manufacture drama by making Illyana the mean girl who bullies Dani for a while. Taylor-Joy chews some scenery on this front, but it’s just not that interesting; we’ve all seen this sort of thing done better by real girls.

The other issue that The New Mutants has, one that I think also led to me wanting to rewrite that sucker in real time, is staleness. It’s flat from the start, when the overwhelming motif of the movie’s first scene is “an opaque mist” and the next ten minutes slowly lurch into character introductions that are kept to the basics and are never really advance from there. I’m struggling to write about the characters in any serious way because there is not much interiority to those people no matter how you slice it. Boone takes an inhuman approach to his characters, seeing them mostly as people who can do X, who must perform Y for the sake of getting this movie to ninety minutes, and to whom some Z trauma has happened. Rahne, we find out, has been branded and abused by a priest in her native Scotland, but the experience has not turned her off of religion itself. What wellspring that bubbles from is a mystery. Illyana’s backstory is so nonspecifically weird—unlike Dani’s demon bear, which is referenced in the opening voiceover, it’s tough to piece together what, exactly, her monsters are—that it makes the movie’s most interesting character with its most talented actress a cypher much longer than I think The New Mutants wants her to be a cypher.

It’s difficult to say who’s giving the best performance of the bunch. It might be Heaton, who is benefiting from having a character who is whitebread enough to perform naturally and a power that is shown to use pretty early on. Since this was filmed, Taylor-Joy’s Queen’s Gambit has given her enough of a breakout that, like Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart, I think she has the world more or less open to her; I don’t think that the Boris and Natasha accent or tough girl presentation conform to her all that well. Williams, Zaga, and especially Hunt are all sadly anonymous in these parts, as drab and empty as their mental hospital setting. Boone is still making The Fault in Our Stars in some way, I think, stuck on this almost suburban feel for a movie which I don’t think benefits from feeling suburban at all. (One can almost hear him coaching his young actors, telling them that they’re just normal kids but with tragic pasts, etc.) The images in this movie lack energy on their own, which is a problem for any movie, but compared to the images that Bill Sienkewicz drew for the comics version of this story, they are the least interesting possible interpretation of it. It’s easy to blame studio interference for this pervasive dullness, but there’s no doubt that this movie was doomed to beige long before Disney acquired Fox.

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