There is an interesting idea at the heart of The New Mutants: What if a larger blockbuster franchise is used as the universe for smaller stories, of characters that may or may not go on to serve a larger purpose in the respective 'cinematic universe'? It can also be a way to include varied genres and fresh perspectives that explore more nuanced issues or complex characters while being tethered to a familiar franchise.
A young-adult horror flick from The Fault In Our Stars director Josh Boone, The New Mutants may not be the perfect proof of concept for the potential of such an attempt, even though it does have a few things going for it.
After an incident that wipes out an entire Native American reservation, young Dani (Blu Hunt) finds herself as the only unexpected survivor of the devastation. She wakes up in an institution that houses more people like her " the ones with mutations, identified young, now being studied and trained to deal with their new powers. We quickly realise though, that this is not Professor Charles Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, but a different, more sinister enterprise. While Dani doesn't yet know what her own powers are, she meets others who've travelled a bit more along their X-Journey. The X-Men find mere fleeting references because this film is about these specific characters.
The film doesn't take too long to establish its genre beats. Set almost entirely within one sole eerie building, with a handful of characters that are ostensibly trapped within, sharing their issues in group therapy sessions with the good doctor Reyes (Alice Braga), you sense soon enough that there's something a little off about this austere institution. While the youngsters are figuring out their own interpersonal dynamics and conflicts, there's something else that seems to be closing in on them.
There are a few things that can be appreciated in The New Mutants. The young cast " led by Maisie Williams and the irrepressible Anya Taylor-Joy " does a solid job. The young mutants have to turn to each other for friends as well as foes, and their varied interactions anchor the film; even a queer romance plays out organically within. While James Mangold's Logan remains the gold standard for a character-driven X-Men story, The New Mutants shows that it can also be treated differently.
It suffers, however, because, by the end of its 94-minute runtime, it still ends up being more faithful to the superhero formula than to what appeared to be its own initial intentions. (It also seems longer than its 94 minutes, which is rarely a good thing for a movie.) Beyond a point, the horror elements fail to be sensory or gripping. There are times when the film is almost " I hate to say this " boring. It may have been an interesting way of fusing genres on paper, but the film's languorous tone, with occasional horror thrills and an explosion of VFX, set pieces doesn't do justice to the way the characters are set up.
These aren't regular youngsters, but X-Humans " and young ones at that. The idea of grappling with something possibly destructive within you that defies understanding or control is lip-smacking. Imagine a young adult from a specific sub-community, discovering and dealing with not just the issues that come with growing up, but also this mutation within that unfairly sets you apart as 'not normal'. Put a diverse bunch of them together in what is, for all intents and purposes, a haunted house. The scope for all kinds of thrills and drama is immense, and all the delays and reshoots with this particular film clearly didn't result in the way to go.
How one wishes the film could have delved deeper into the psyche of these rather special rebellious kids and the demons they're facing, both inside and out; and how it could then have placed them in a truly imaginative peril.
Instead, the film wastes its set up by following a predictable route, promising to take the mutants into truly dark places, but ultimately just wandering through halls, figuring out their powers conveniently on the go. It just instinctively seems like a longer, darker, more heart-breaking film might have been a better approach for this enterprise.
The New Mutants finds its best moments when the mutants in question are holed up in their safe spaces while dealing with their respective issues " Maisie Williams' Rahne (pronounced 'rain' or 'reign', your choice) in an empty confession box, Anya Taylor-Joy's Illyana having intricate conversations with her hand puppet, Blu Hunt's Dani retreating to the comfort of her Cheyenne culture and its legends. Not to mention the boys "the human cannonball Sam, and the rich Brazilian Bobby, who gets hot when he's horny (quite literally and spectacularly). This motley group, with its pushes and pulls within, deserved a more ingeniously crafted attempt at rooting it in genre, which the film just fails to do by the end of it.
Watch the trailer here