The New Mutants Review

Stuck in development hell after numerous delays spanning several years, Josh Boone’s The New Mutants finally hit theatres this month and is one of the first to do so during the global pandemic. Breaking the traditional superhero mould and fusing X-Gene mayhem with YA horror, the biggest question hanging over its head is was it worth the wait?

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

It feels like a lifetime ago when Thor: Ragnarok landed in theatres across the world back in October 2017, accompanied by the first trailer for what would be the final entry in the FOX-Men series of cinematic outings. Had this movie released in April 2018 as originally planned its target audience would still be gushing over Stranger Things and one of its stars Charlie Heaton, they would not yet have been disappointed by Maisie Williams’ final season of Game of Thrones, and they would be eagerly awaiting Anya Taylor-Joy’s next blockbuster outing between the one-two punch that would become Split and its sequel Glass. Instead those ships have all left the harbour a long time ago, and since the planned reshoots never actually happened we have to wonder what was the point of keeping this ensemble of talented young actors on the shelf for so long.

A couple of minutes and one disaster movie intro later after the lights dim and the projector powers up, the audience follows Blu Hunt’s Dani Moonstar to the mysterious medical facility in which she has woken up. Far from a traditional hospital, she finds herself handcuffed to the bed and under constant observation by biometric-scanning CCTV cameras before the initially-soothing Dr. Reyes comforts her new patient and explains her new set of circumstances. Soon joined by her four other fellow patients, or rather inmates, Dani discovers that she is being kept in an off-the-grid facility which teaches dangerous new mutants how to control their powers and reintegrate into society. However, doctoral qualifications aside, Reyes shares very few similarities with the altruistic Xavier over in Westchester.

It isn’t long before the sinister underbelly of Dani’s new home is revealed, with her housemates being kept there mostly against their will long-term with no release in sight.

The exact circumstances of her arrival uncertain, all that is known is that something devastating tore through Dani’s ancestral home and killed all of its inhabitants. She, however, is relatively unharmed and strange things begin to go bump in the night when she becomes agitated during her nightmares. With a healthy dose of dramatic irony at play by keeping the movie’s six characters in the dark until the final act, it is immediately apparent to the audience that Dani has the ability to make a person’s worst nightmare manifest in the real world. This leads to a destructive final confrontation with her inner demons as it takes the form of the Demon Bear from her childhood folklore, killing Dr. Reyes and freeing these five new mutants from under her boot. But not before they get the chance to work together as a team and embrace rather than fear their superpowers to defeat it, of course.

Things don’t look good for the new mutants heading into the final confrontation

In many ways the movie works, making the audience care for each of the teenagers in turn except for Roberto ‘Sunspot’ da Costa, who is an unfortunate victim of sequel setup which will now never happen.

This disappointing oversight aside, by and large Boone has made great use of a short runtime to cover the backstories of four other troubled teenagers whose origin stories contain a mix of survivor’s guilt, Catholic shame, penitent mourning, and repressed sexual trauma. Far from the usual radioactive spider or gamma rays, one thing which Boone does not do with this cast of comic books characters is shy away from what makes them tick. Although it is for the most part implicit context rather than explicit content, the narrative is still served well by the gradual reveals of their individual histories.

That being said, what The New Mutants needed more than anything else is more room to breathe. Claustrophobia aside, which in fact ups the tension as the characters never leave the facility, events and exposition happen one after the other and after another like clockwork, as if a checklist of things to cover is being ticked off one by one. If the rumours of the planned reshoots being used to incorporate more horror elements are true, they would have been a welcome addition if they also brought along with them enough extra footage to bump the runtime up to two hours and allow a world to develop onscreen. Rather than escaping to the world of cinema and becoming immersed in the FOX-Men universe one last time, instead we feel more like casual observers who are simply viewing quick-cut snippets of the characters’ lives.

To make matters worse, even though she is the closest thing to a main character in this ensemble, Dani is overshadowed by Illyana Rasputin in almost every way.

When the armour and sword come out, you run

With the most explicit backstory and substantial script material to work with, Anya Taylor-Joy easily puts in the best performance of the bunch and makes this another successful footnote in her growing filmography. Not that fellow sci-fi franchise veterans Charlie Heaton and Maisie Williams are pushovers, nor are the rest of the cast, but it is a simple case of another character ultimately being more compelling and entertaining to watch than the one who is supposed to be the audience’s eyes and introduction into this new world. Add in miniature dragon Lockheed, a gigantic glowing Soulsword, teleportation portals into Limbo and suddenly you find yourself just lamenting the fact that we will likely never see Magik link up with her famous metallic brother Colossus of Deadpool fame.

Rahne ‘Wolfsbane’ Sinclair midtransformation – try to scorch her with a hot brand at your own peril

The aforementioned Williams also produces some of the best acting in this outing, her strong Catholic faith contrasting nicely with the real-life horror movie unfolding in front of these fictional characters. Sharing a number of touching scenes with Blu Hunt’s Dani as they explore their sexual identity and budding romance, in many ways they link up to form the heart of the movie.

Tragically, this great performance is overshadowed in some scenes by shockingly bad special effects in an otherwise impressive movie CGI-wise. Made famous for being a werewolf in an X-Man suit in the source material, here Rahne Sinclair deviates between being a regular wolf and Maisie Williams with extra tufts of fur around her neck and longer nails. In a project which contains a building-sized nightmare bear, a teleporting girl with a sword and a pair of boys who can spontaneously combust and charge through the air at extreme speeds, this is unfortunately a distractingly disappointing effort which will not age well for a character who the audience spends a lot of time connecting with and is portrayed by such a fan-favourite actor.

Also disappointing is the absence of the true villain behind Dr. Reyes and the facility, implied through context to be the infamous X-Men villain Mr. Sinister when it is revealed that Essex Corporation is the governing body. No doubt setup for the rest of the trilogy along with the pleasantly surprising connection to Logan, given that this movie is now just a one-and-done affair it instead reeks of unfulfilled opportunities.

A little worse for wear and severely traumatised, but at least the world is now their oyster

Plagued by studio-mandated pushbacks and delays that killed any momentum the project might have had in the first place, The New Mutants caps off the FOX-Men Cinematic Universe with a whimper rather than a bang. Although it is full to the brim with young and talented actors, an appropriately eerie atmosphere, mostly-perfect special effects and a drive to do something different, this outing is weighed down by failings which are too glaring to ignore. It’s hurried runtime robs the audience of the quieter moments which are well-executed when present, its traditionally superhero-esque third act marks a tonal shift so out of left field that it gives the audience whiplash, and its efforts to tie together other projects containing an X-Gene are unfortunately too little too late and leave longtime fans of the franchise craving something that is now never going to see fruition.

Final Score: 6/10

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels Season One Review

Riding high on the brand-recognition coattails of its predecessing original series, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels had a lot to live up to. Unfortunately, thanks to a sprawling plot which rarely satisfies, it fails in admittedly stunning fashion.

One thing is plain for all to see even just a couple of minutes into the series premiere – this show is beautifully made. From its direction, to its production design, to its creepy atmosphere bubbling just beneath the surface, on paper it should be a giant feather in Showtime’s cap to be applauded. For all its flash, however, the substance leaves a lot to be desired.

What connects a Chicano gang, racial tensions, a German war veteran, a would-be Los Angeles demagogue, and rocket science? Not a whole lot apart from Natalie Dormer and a proposed freeway, despite what this show would have you believe.

If three’s a crowd then four’s a celebration of Natalie Dormer’s acting

Playing each of her parts expertly well, Dormer is the common thread in this web of narratives. Primarily portraying Magda, the fictional sister of Mexican deity Santa Muerte who is an original creation of this series, she takes on several mortal guises as she stokes the fire of fury and discontent in a variety of different groups. But to what end?

The first handful of episodes are spent setting the scene, building all of the different pieces of this series into a house of cards so that they can be later knocked down in spectacular fashion. In hindsight this is a logical tactic, but in practice it made for boring television as a handful of irrelevant-to-each-other dramas play out in front of the audience with Dormer being the ever-present manipulator. Were it not for her impressively diverse acting these episodes would have been enough to turn away any viewer who was expecting a true spin-off to the Eva Green-led original series.

The poor unfortunates who become locked in Magda’s crosshairs

It is only around the halfway point of the season that any sort of traction is made, and by the time any significant action gets underway it is the season finale. What, then, was the point?

The fictionalised world that has been created in 1938 Los Angeles seems to have been done so to provide a social commentary rather than a pre-WWII gothic horror. Replace any of Natalie Dormer’s characters with a regular, ill-meaning human being instead of a malevolent entity and the results would be the same. Mateo Vega would still be enticed by the gang lifestyle after the assault of his sister. Councilman Townsend would still become increasingly power-hungry. And otherwise-caring father Peter Craft would still be nudged towards the ideals of the Führer. Granted the scheming Elsa and her hellspawn, the source of the only real horror in the show, do not so much nudge as they do recklessly shove, the message is the same nonetheless. People, no matter how noble their intentions, will go to the extreme when they and their loved ones come under threat.

The audience is treated to terrific performances from Daniel Zovatto and Nathan Lane as our buddy cop duo, as well as from Kerry Bishé, Jessica Garza and Adriana Barraza who portray televangelist Sister Molly, the young girl who runs away to join her temple and the Santa Muerte-worshipping mother who disapproves of such things. Were it not for these fine actors, along with Dormer herself, and the high production value of the series then the whole thing would be a write-off.

The overarching story may be interesting in the abstract and well-executed in some places, but a spinoff from Penny Dreadful carries with it certain expectations. Take out the supernatural element and replace it with ordinary people and there would be the makings of a fine television series. Instead we have a Frankensteined show which fails to thrill fans of horror and disappoints fans of character-driven drama.

The kids are not alright

Visually stunning and thought-provoking in places, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels makes big promises and then sadly fails to deliver. The applause-worthy performances of its main cast and headline star counteract some of the damage done by its conflicted identity and make it more than just passable – but not by much.

Final Score: 5/10

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