THE UNSUNNY HEX-MEN
The New Mutants (15)
Review: David Stephens
While some genre fans may be sick of the never-ending flow of MCU/DCEU/Sony/other superhero movies, it's worth bearing in mind that one of the OG comic-book flicks was a horror. And if Stephen Norrington's "Blade" (1998) arguably started the trickle, then "X-Men" (2000) kicked the floodgates down for good. So maybe it's fitting that a later X-Men "spinoff" would dip a toe into the fear genre and explore the possibilities. But with a long torturous history that involves, reshoots, studio mergers, and (obviously) Covid pushbacks, it's honestly a surprise to finally see it at cinemas at all! A personal project for director Josh Boone, everything you see in the current cut of "New Mutants" was shot in 2017. Despite extensive reshoots being planned (not unusual for a big studio film), they never happened. This was because Fox, who then owned all the rights to the "X-men" features, was then bought out by Disney (owners of Marvel Studios), who had their own long-term plans for Wolverine and his buddies. Hence the pause for a couple of years, rolling into the 20s from the 10s. But it has finally made its journey to the big screen, and we went to see if it was "incredible" or "inedible".
Taking place in the Fox X-Men cinematic universe (for the very last time), the plot sees some kind of phenomena wreck an Indian reservation where Danielle "Dani" Moonstar (Blu Hunt) is living. She awakes in a gothic institutional hospital, in the care of Dr Cecilia Reyes (Alice Braga). Dani learns that she has exhibited mutant powers and is being monitored in the facility until she can control them. She has that in common with four other teenage mutant un-ninja non-turtles. There is Russian mean-girl Illyana Rasputin (Anya Taylor-Joy from "The VVitch" and "Glass", clearly having a ball with the material), Rahne Sinclair (GOT fave Maisie Williams), Sam Guthrie, ("Stranger Things" fave Charlie Heaton), and Roberto da Costa (Henry Zaga). Each have their own powers and social problems, meaning that the hospital is as much of a prison as it is a place of healing. But soon after Dani arrives, some kind of evil presence is awakened and is hell-bent on keeping the nascent heroes from ever leaving the place.
In some ways, covid has probably allowed a reflective period to fall on certain genres, although horror has mostly still thrived. Check out the success of zoom-horror "Host" and the recent online version of Frightfest and other virtual festivals. So, in this case, it allows the more centric character study of five comic-book characters feel a little fresher. In fact, the one location and "lockdown" storyline feel much more relatable than yet another alien "sky-beam" or nebulous entity threatening the world itself. The cast (especially Taylor-Joy and Williams) rise to that and have some fun with the material. The old chestnut of "exploiting your greatest fear" also allows for some decent genre moments (spoilt by the trailer of course), especially the "Smile Men", which are none-too-subtle personifications of child abuse. Super creepy in corridor shots, they're like a cross between Slenderman and "The Pale Man" from "Pan's Labyrinth"! The "Demon Bear" is also quite well realised, as is the burnt girlfriend in the swimming pool.
For all that, it's not outstanding. However, neither is it the absolute disaster that some reviews have had it pegged as. It's somewhere in-between. Exploration of teen angst has been done in different ways before, but here it's a touch too obvious in the allegories. Illyana's "limbo" was her escape from childhood torment, Rahne's "wolfiness" is a visualisation of her catholic guilt, Roberto's heat is a fear of closeness… you get the picture. Arguably the time spent with these mutants won't be super-powered enough for the Marvel crew, and not original enough for everybody else. Some moments don't make sense. For example, how does Dr Reyes run the whole place by herself? Surely a few extras to play security goons were available, or does Covid exist in the cinematic universe as well? Rahne's transformation FX are a little "off" (especially when the finished form looks like the family pet to save on CG). And the whole plot is a little… shall we say… slight? Having said that, kudos to Boone for producing something that is remarkably coherent after everything it has been subjected to, and still remains mostly entertaining (something the cast can take credit for). So creepy in places, not so super in others, but still a decent timewaster for most.