With the eventual release of Josh Boone’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer-inflected mutant caper, the curtain finally comes down on Fox’s increasingly moribund X-Men franchise. It’s a disappointment as a film, after a production that took three years to reach screens.
And in the middle of a global pandemic no less.
The New Mutants – take the long road
With all the trade and fan press speculation of studio-directed reshoots, cast member disgruntlement in interviews, and the takeover of Fox by Disney, I was not expecting much. Certainly, the sheer weight of bad press meant I had no intention to risk my health to see this flick. I waited for it to become available digitally.
Even that, the digital download, a weightless, ephemeral glimmer of media content, liable to simply vanish from my device memory should the provider so choose – feels too generous a stage for this misbegotten film.
A debt of influence
Boone’s intent as a film-maker is relatively clear. The New Mutants features nods to John Hughes, Stephen King and Joss Whedon. This is teenage drama with touches of American gothic horror. But these nods, most egregiously the characters sitting down to watch their Buffy boxsets in two separate scenes, only bring to mind how much weaker this film is by comparison.
The setting of a mental hospital is appropriately creepy, given the interest in dreamscape surrealism of 80s Marvel mutant creators like Chris Claremont, Bill Sienkiewicz and Frank Miller. Depictions of characters trapped in asylums, restrained and operated on by nightmarish figures are a recurring trope from the time.
You might almost think the writers and artists of the 1980s had a profound fear of psychiatry.
The mutant metaphor
The setting of The New Mutants works for both the era of the original comic, and the film’s chosen theme – in a world that fears and hates mutants, these young people are being detained for who they are before they have a chance to know themselves.
Had Boone decided to lean on the idea of mutation being a queer metaphor and remade But I’m A Cheerleader or The Miseducation of Cameron Post with the serial numbers filed off, this could have worked quite well.
Trauma by numbers
Instead The New Mutants feels largely flat and lifeless with no narrative momentum of its own. The characters of Dani Moonstar (Blu Hunt), Illyana Rasputin (Anya Taylor-Joy), Rahne Sinclair (Maisie Williams), Sam Guthrie (Charlie Heaton) and Roberto Da Costa (Henry Zaga) are lumped together, with their respective inner trauma slowly drip-fed out. While Cecilia Reyes (Alice Braga) attempts to drag these heartfelt confessions out of the group, nominally so they can control their abilities enough through therapy to join the X-Men (and if that sounds a bit dodgy, it is) – it is Dani’s wildly unpredictable psychic powers that prove to be the accelerant to the violent catharsis of the film.
So why is it so dull? Everything from the grey visuals to a mismatched score and a choppy pace to the proceedings left me a bit adrift early in the film. A same-sex romance, much promoted on the film’s release, is refreshingly matter-of-fact, but like the rest of the film lacks any emotional charge. There is even a hole in the film where an antagonist should be (although a late-film confrontation with a character hiding behind a curtain is reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz).
Wait for the tell-all book
Add to that an attempt to link this film with the machinations of the Essex corporation, hinted at in X-Men: Apocalypse and Logan, and you’ve got a film stranded on the desolate shores of movie X-title continuity.
This is a film that has a fascinating behind the scenes tell-all book waiting to be published, but there is no reason to watch it.
As for Boone’s adaptation of The Stand, I think I’ll just rewatch that Youtube edit of Jamey Sheridan’s Randall Flagg singing Baby Can You Dig Your Man for ten minutes.
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