I’ll be honest, right up until it actually came out, I had suspected that New Mutants would be stuck in a bizarre limbo of cancelled and not cancelled forever, an ironically fitting place for any movie starring Illyana Rasputin. But come out it did, and initial reviews were less than thrilling, many commenting about how unfinished and hokey the effects were, as well as the fact that the supposed horror film was PG-13. So, I had to see it for myself. As soon as I found an open movie theater that was showing it, anyways.
That… proved difficult. Eventually, though, it came out for home release and so I gave it a watch. And boy howdy it sure was a film. That is a thing I can say about The New Mutants.
Before we dive into why, let’s do a very quick overview of the source material.
The New Mutants was an X-Men spin off series that ran from 1982 to 1991, and depicted the exploits of the New Mutants, a group of mutant children who attended Xavier’s school to better learn to control their gifts, but unlike the X-Men were not supposed to attempt to be a superhero team. Don’t worry, they did a lot of it anyways, much to the consternation of their various guardians.
The New Mutants movie draws elements from all over the series, mostly the 1984 Demon Bear Saga arc, in which an otherworldly malevolent bear hunts Danielle Moonstar and the rest of The New Mutants. The New Mutants movie, despite appearances by a “Demon Bear,” is not an adaptation of this story. Or of any New Mutants storyline. Now that can absolutely be a good thing – we don’t need yet another re-tread of the Dark Phoenix saga, for example – but rather than forging off in a new direction, The New Mutants feels more like a standard horror movie outline had some superpowers slapped on top of it.
The movie begins with a voiceover from Danielle “Dani” Moonstar reiterating the “there are two wolves inside you” quote you’ve no doubt seen everywhere except with bears instead of wolves. Right after the narration, she wakes suddenly as her father escorts her from their home as it is attacked by a mysterious creature. The film just as suddenly cuts to black and Dani wakes up cuffed to a hospital bed in a nameless generic hospital you would find in any given horror film. After that we get an overly long sequence as Dani drags said bed towards a door, is given an exposition dump by the director of the facility Dr. Michelle Reyes, and is given a very curt explanation of what happened to her family – dead- and where she is: a facility for young mutants.
Anyways, with very little fanfare the movie switches to a group therapy session that mostly serves to introduce Dani to the remaining cast members. Samuel “Sam Guthrie”, a Kentuckian, Rahne Sinclair, a soft spoken Scottish girl, Roberto “Bobby” Da Costa, and Illyana Nikolievna Alexandria Rasputin, a Russian girl who talks to a stuffed dragon named Lockheed and is instantly and needlessly antagonistic towards Dani. I bring up each character’s location of origin because apart from Bobby, none of these characters are portrayed by actors from their character’s country of origin, and each of them speaks with an accent, though not good ones. Even Charlie Heaton, who does pretty good work pretending to be an American as Jonathon Byers on Stranger Things, just sounds unnatural trying to speak with a thick Kentucky accent.
But it’s not just the accents that are off. The characters are off as well. Each of the teenaged characters had their backstories altered and made more tragic. Even those with already tragic backstories were given darker ones. Sam, whose original backstory had him working in a coal mine after his father’s death due to miner lung and his powers activating in response to a cave in saving his life and the life of another miner, is now responsible for that cave in and the death of his father and everyone else in the mine. Rhane Sinclair’s backstory is largely the same, but the movie decided that she needed to be branded as well as beaten and to have mauled her father to death. Illyana’s backstory involves child trafficking as opposed to losing herself in a demon dimension as a child. That would make sense if they wanted to simplify her story, but no, she can still open portals to Limbo in the movie so there doesn’t seem to be any particular reason for the change in backstory.
The strangest backstory change for me is Bobby’s. In the comics, his powers manifested during a soccer game as he was being attacked by another child for being dark skinned and mixed race, with Bobby’s super strength (and accompanying literally black skinned form) surging forth as he defended himself, injuring the other child and scaring a stadium’s worth of people. In the movie, however, his fire powers manifested as he became sexually active with a girl, burning her alive. Not only is this a change to Bobby’s power and backstory, it’s lifting them wholesale off of another character, Rusty “Firefist” Collins, an entirely different character who was brilliantly reimagined in Deadpool 2, an excellent example of how deviating from the source material can do wonders for a character, one that New Mutants could have taken a lesson from.
This isn’t just pedantry about changes, though, as together they serve to make the movie feel less like a reimagining of The New Mutants thrust into a horror movie setting, and more like generic horror movie characters with X-Men appropriate labels glued on. While the movie does make nods to the X-Men continuity – A miming of Professor X’s temple touch, a mention of “Essex” and a name drop of “X-Men” – the refusal to name any other notable X-Men character just highlights how unconnected to the X-Men franchise the movie is despite borrowing from it where it wanted.
In any case, the plot mostly involves Dani and the other mutants wandering about the facility, looking for a way to escape and / or to figure out why they’ve been brought there, but there never feels like there’s any real tension or stakes, and both the pacing and timing of individual events just fall flat. At one point Dani thinks about committing suicide by jumping off a clock tower to rejoin her family, but the entire sequence takes less time than the exposition dump at the start of the movie and it’s immediately forgotten. The movie is also so overt about the facility and Dr. Reyes being suspect that there’s no tension in it at all, to the point that the reveal that Dr. Reyes works for “Essex Foundation” and the facility exists to create mutant assassins just ends up a complete anticlimax. Even most of the characters are not surprised by this revelation.
Also falling flat are the movie’s sexual moments, both of which feel shoehorned in. The first, in which Dani and Rahne kiss after sneaking outside after curfew, seems to exist only for Rahne to feel guilty about later, summoning an illusion of her abusive father. The other, in which Illyana seduces Bobby such that he bursts into flames is equally pointless, especially since it’s imemdiately revealed not to be Illyana, but an illusion of her. Both of these moments seem to come out of nowhere because the plot requires it, and vanish just as quickly. It’s especially jarring because everyone else in the movie has an illusion directly tied to their traumatic backstory, except Bobby, who substituted his girlfriend for Illyana.
Speaking of those traumatic illusions, while there’s an obvious in universe reason for them happening, narratively, they also seem to just happen to everyone because they needed them to happen, without any regard for increasing tension for the characters in general or the audience. Sam Gurthrie’s illusion happens when he’s completely alone and comes across as a flashback rather than anything supernatural, and Illyana’s seems to happen just so there’s something to scare the cast before the big finale.
Actually, a lot of this movie feels like things happen just because the need to happen to move the plot along. Like Michelle Reyes being chosen as the facility director not because she’s a good thematic fit for the role, but because her shield powers make escape impossible. Illyana is bitchy to Dani so they can have a moment later where they become closer together because that’s the sort of thing that happens. Illyana has and talks to a stuffed Lockheed just so he can be revealed to be real later instead of teasing the idea earlier in the film. The kids break curfew and play around with a lie detector because that needs to happen for Bobby to come clean about his backstory. The confrontation with Reyes where she nearly kills the teenaged mutants feels forced, as does her eventually death by the previously unseen Demon Bear. Even the final conflict with said Demon Bear – a terrible CGI mess that still one of the smaller problems with the film – seems to happen mostly because the film needed a big action set piece and so everyone could show off their powers. The fight ends with Dani realizing that she made the demon bear in the first place, along with everyone else’s trauma illusions, something we the viewers are almost directly told in the film almost an hour earlier, making that revelation pointless as well.
In the end, I don’t think The New Mutants succeeds as either an X-Men film or as a horror movie, though not for the excellent work put in by the cast, or the effects team, or even specifically the director, as a number of parts of the movie do work. They just don’t work together. What I think ruins the movie is a mix of pacing issues, over and under-informing the audience, being afraid to truly stretch into a psychological thriller, and utilizing powers other than Dani’s to really explore psychological horror. For example, Illyana’s teleports take her to the realm of Limbo and can sometimes transport her through time, so imagine the possibilities for psychological uncertainty that might bring. Like Illyana appearing to Dani in a random moment, saying something ominous, and vanishing. Or a small Russian girl appearing and wandering the halls. Or that instead of Illyana carrying and speaking to the plush Lockheed, that the toy simply appeared in shots and Illyana “heard” it talk to her about scenes it was in but she wasn’t. You could have even taken made the entire scenario and facility a product of Dani’s powers and that could have been what she realized at the end instead of the Demon Bear. All of these elements would have made the film that much more effective and memorable, instead of the rather milquetoast offering that is the final X-Men movie made under the Fox label.
In short, I do not recommend The New Mutants. What do I recommend instead is stick around, because while I was watching this for a review, I did think back to a certain 1996 Made for TV movie, so we’ll have to see if it holds up to my nostalgia and how it compares to The New Mutants.