THE NEW MUTANTS – Review
Excelsior Marvel “Movie-Verse” Maniacs! Going through some strong bouts of “cold turkey”, since it’s been over a year since your last “film fix” (seems like an eternity since Spidey was FAR FROM HOME)? By this time we’ve gotten at least two treks to that home of fast-paced fun adventures. They’re still insisting that we’ll see the BLACK WIDOW “prequel’ (or would “flashback fable’ be more on the nose) before the end of this year. Well, the first real studio film to play in theatres (and lots of drive-ins) since many of them re-opened on August 28 isn’t technically a Marvel Studios film, but (as shown in most ads and in its opening seconds) rather it’s “in association with Marvel”. That’s because it’s a “spin-off” of the X-Men franchise, which has been licensed to Twentieth Century Fox (‘member them) for just over twenty years. So, will this spawn another “side series’ as did both Wolverine and Deadpool? Much as with baseball, this flick’s characters are the “X-farm team”, but there’s plenty of comics fans who have “big league” hopes for THE NEW MUTANTS.
As with most “X-flicks”, this movie puts us right in the center of chaos and calamity during its opening sequence. On a cold winter night (or so it appears), something is wiping out a remote village. While shops and homes explode, a young father carries his teenage daughter into the woods, placing her inside the opening of an old tree. As he dashes back to town, she tightly shuts her eyes. All goes black as the sounds of doom begin to fade. When she opens her eyes again, the young woman is in a spartan room, one arm chained to the hospital-style bed. A voice on the intercom is soon given flesh and blood as she meets Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga), who confirms the teen’s identity as Danielle (“Danni”) Moonstar (Blu Hunt). Reyes tries to get Danni to recall what happened at her home and tells her that her new refuge is a hospital lab (or is it a holding cell) for young people with “enhanced abilities” (sounds nicer than mutants). Hours later she meets the other residents. Danni quickly bonds with the shy Irish “lass” Rahne (Maisie Williams), who feels most alive as she dashes through the forest as a wolf. On the opposite end, there’s immediate friction with the tough, taunting Illyana (Anya Taylor-Joy) whose right arm can be covered in armor complete with a flaming sword even as she transports to a weird “limbo dimension” where he prized puppet, the dragon Lockheed, becomes real. Oh, and it’s “co-ed”. There’s the timid Kentucky-born Sam (Charlie Heaton), his left arm always in a cast, due to his talent at “blasting off’ like a rocket and crashing back to Earth. And though he keeps his “gift” under wraps, there’s also South American “rich kid” Roberto (Henry Zaga), who the others find out has heat-based “talents”. But what of Danni? Reyes, who encases the building in an escape-proof “force field”, subjects her to a series of tests to find out just what makes her tick (and raise the readings on the psionic meter). All this while her new pals are being attacked by twisted versions of past events and tormentors. Will the group be destroyed by these fearsome brought-to-life nightmares. And just who are the “superiors’ who Reyes says are her employers?
Like the original X series, this film showcases some of cinema’s (and TV’s) most talented on-the-rise actors. The most prolific one is probably Taylor-Joy who has bounced between “indie” flicks (THE WITCH and this year’s EMMA.) and studio fare (SPLIT and GLASS). As Illyana (AKA Majik in the comics series), she commands the screen with her charismatic take on the school’s “cool bad girl” ( memories of Jolie in GIRL, INTERRUPTED) even as we’re trying to place that “wonky” accent (guessing Eastern Europe transplant in the Bronx). No wonder she’s so busy since Ms. Taylor-Joy appears to be having a blast, delivering “burns’ and dashing into battle like a golden-haired knight. On the other end, there’s the quiet work of Williams who’s in constant conflict over her “gift” and her sexuality as both go against her strict religious training. Her Rahne (AKA Wolfsbane) isn’t comfortable in her own skin (and sometimes fur) until she connects with Hunt’s Danni (AKA Mirage), who is dealing with extreme loss while searching for the truth about her troubled past. Hunt expertly conveys her confused unstable mindset. That’s part of what troubles Heaton as Sam (AKA Cannonball) whose dark brooding demeanor stem from the collateral damage of his abilities. While he’s all darkness, Zaga as Roberto (AKA Sunspot) puts up a facade as the fun-loving “playa” but tries to suppress the visions of his out-of-his-control power, which he believes is a true curse. Pulling the strings in her unseen office, Braga as Reyes exudes the air of the unemotional researcher, but often resorts to the passive/aggressive manipulations of Nurse Ratched, cooly trying to clamp the lid down on her own deadly “cuckoo’s nest”. Though Braga is consistently aloof, this heroes’ origin tale needs a more dynamic antagonist.
Director Josh Boone has taken a very different approach to that superhero origin tale, combing it with a 1980s haunted house tale, or closer to the Elm Street series, as rebellious teens are separated to face their fears. Since they’re mutants they are better prepared to stand their ground than the “fodder for Freddie K”. It’s not until the somewhat rushed final show-down when they truly bond, certainly more than in their “Reyes is out so let’s frolic” sequence. Although that’s the only time they really make mention of the “X-Team” we all know so well (Roberto twirls around in a wheelchair as he puts his hand on his temple in the Prof’s familiar pose). Everything seems to be hastily chopped and pasted (maybe to get the PG-13 rating rather than the R), from the romance of Rahne and Danni (it’s hinted at early as they enjoy some Willow and Tara action from the vastly superior TV series of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, which is always playing on their rec room DVD set-up) to the big “beastie” throw-down in limbo (complete with a twitchy CGI dragon-baby). Still, this is a better flick than the spectacular flame-out that was X-MEN: DARK PHOENIX last year, if just for its 94-minute run-time (the former went on and on and…). And so, the twenty-year reign of Lauren Shuler-Donner mutant movies staggers (it was originally pegged for April of 18) to a close. Now Kevin Feige and his crew will devise a new X-series and its spin-offs (the “rumor mill” seems to want Taron Egerton as the new Logan). Till then, these teens that form THE NEW MUTANTS will send those “gifted youngsters” into the “franchise horizon”.
Two Out of Four