Wednesday 14 October 2020

Thoughts on The New Mutants

 In the latest of my "occasionally catching up on the films I've seen lately" series, I'm taking a look at New Mutants, the Fox comicbook movie that has been stirring in development hell a while. This was supposed to be released in 2018, but the continual messing around by more than one production company delayed it by two years. The original idea, to make the The New Mutants comic series into a full-fledged horror film was kiboshed by Fox's cold feet. The film was rewritten and reshot, then changed back again after the horror-themed trailers gained a good response, before Disney bought up Fox and demanded yet more reworking to make it marketable under their brand.

The result is a very brief 94-minute film, with a botched sense of tone. Still, I found a lot to enjoy. The first couple of acts work really well as a genuinely unsettling asylum horror, riffing on the enduring fear of being unjustly imprisoned. It balances this with the superpower stuff pretty well, particularly since the New Mutants' power sets are mostly pretty horrifying anyway. The final act has the same problems many superhero movies have, going all out with the action at the expense of the tone and coherence of the film, but overall it works. It feels like there's a much stronger film in here, though, and I hope that it proves popular enough that someday a director's cut is released. Sadly, the fact that it finally limped to cinemas in the middle of the pandemic means it'll probably be put down as a failure regardless.

This is officially part of the X-Men movie universe that started back in 2000, and after twenty years audiences are familiar enough with that for a mere handful of references to reassure them this is the same world. Just having people manifest powers spontaneously as a fact of life makes everything much more streamlined.

The cast is excellent, and the interpretations of the characters is strong. Blu Hunt is the star, playing Dani Moonstar (Psyche or Mirage in the comics), a teenaged girl of Cheyenne heritage who manifests her powers when her village and family are destroyed by a demon bear. If this seems ridiculous, then the writers agreed, taking that strange supernatural villain from the comics and reworking its nature very cleverly. I mean, it's well signposted, so I won't reveal the exact nature of Dani's story here for anyone who is going to watch it still. In any case, I liked what they did with the idea and thought Hunt was solid in the role.

Dani is then taken into a hospital/prison/training camp for adolescent mutants whose powers threaten them and their loved ones. Maisie Williams, probably the most recognisable of the young faces here, is excellent as Rahne Sinclair, a Scots girl shunned by her Christian community because of her mutation. Her name in the comics is Wolfsbane, and she's basically a werewolf (I guess the inference is that all werewolves must have shared the same mutated gene, but this is never explored). She and Dani form a close friendship that develops into a very sweet and tentative romance, which is a new development to the comics but works very well onscreen. It adds more weight to the anti-fundamentalist Christian narrative as well.

Anya Taylor-Joy is also excellent as Ilyana Rasputin, aka Magik. She's initially characterised as the surly mean girl, but her character has much more depth than that and has been through real trauma and abuse. Her memories of it clearly aren't meant to be accurate depictions of what she went through, instead manifesting as some of the most horrifying imagery in the film. The fact that she's very sexualised as a result of her abuse actually makes the character uncomfortable to watch, since to begin with she's clearly meant to be the sexy lithe one and this forces you to question how you're viewing her. 

Ilyana has a strange rewrite in the form of Lockheed, the dragon companion that is associated with Shadowcat/Kitty Pryde in the comics. It's not clear exactly when this is set (X-movie continuity being a minefield anyway), so they could have included a recast young Kitty here, but instead, Lockheed is reimagined as Ilyana's soft toy hand puppet, essentially her safety blanket. Her reality warping, dimension jumping powers do give us a "real" Lockheed eventually though. What's missing is her brother, Colossus, who was apparently part of an earlier draft. Still, it's hard to see how he'd fit in here.

Brazilian actor Henry Zaga plays Bobby da Costa (Sunspot in the comics), who's a rich boy jock but is a very vulnerable character once you get past the bravado. His fire-based powers are a standard superhero ability, but the script really looks at how terrifying and destructive they would really be. His character turned up briefly in the future segment Days of Future Past, so presumably this is a good few years before that. I understand there was some controversy over Zaga's casting, since Sunspot is supposed to be of mixed race and Zaga isn't, but to be honest this didn't seem to be part of this version of the character's story at all. 

Charlie Heaton, who's definitely a new big thing since Stranger Things, is Sam Guthrie (Cannonball), and plays him with a broad Kentucky accent. I really liked his character in this, more openly vulnerable than the others but tremendously brave when it came to it. I imagine that, had the Fox X-Men films continued, he would have graduated eventually to X-Force as in the comics, along with maybe some of the other cast members.

The wonderful Alice Braga plays Dr. Reyes, the teens' doctor/captor, and manages to make her both sinister as hell and quite sympathetic. Like in the comics, she can generate powerful forcefields, even using them to maintain the border of the hospital, which is a cool concept. She's normally a heroic character in the comics, so it's interesting that they've made her a villain here. She works for the Essex Corporation, which ties this film to Logan, which is presumably many, many years later. 

While I found the early part of the film very atmospheric, it's still a fairly low-rated film, whereas the initial idea was clearly to go for an R-rated release like Logan and Deadpool. Still, you can get away with quite a lot on a PG-13/UK 15 rating these days, and there are some really disturbing moments. Again, there seems like there's a lot of unrealised potential here. The plan was to make this the beginning of a new trilogy of films, and the ending is left open in a way that could easily be followed up, but this really looks like the last gasp of the Fox X-Men franchise. I mean, it's thirteen films over twenty years, if you count the two Deadpool movies, so that's an impressive innings, but it's fizzled out now and there's no indication that Disney wants anything to do with the series. Well, with the exception of a (presumably toned-down) third Deadpool and recruiting Hugh Jackman back as Wolverine (which is highly unlikely). Any new X-Men projects will be a separate thing, and we'll never get to see the screen manifestation of Mr Sinister. On its own merits, though, The New Mutants works well, but it's inarguably a middle-of-the-road comicbook movie. A shame, because it tried something different and has a lot to enjoy.

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