On Sunday, I returned to my hometown of Boston. A mostly empty Amtrak train carried me to a mostly empty hotel. After checking in, I walked—temperature-checked and masked as ever—to a nearby multiplex, recently reopened, and sat down for an entirely empty screening of the new film The New Mutants. The nominal thriller was the second American wide-release during the pandemic, soon to be followed by the much more anticipated Tenet (which has already made a lot of money all over the world, just not here).
This was a strange reintroduction to my favorite activity. The lobby of the AMC on the Boston Common was devoid of people, save for a friendly security guard and an equally friendly woman behind plexiglass—there to give masks to customers who needed one. But there were no customers to give them to. I rode the escalator up to a huge hallway humming with air-conditioner noise and nothing else and trekked across the sea of carpet to cavernous screening room 18, where I shifted toward the center of row G, a few seats away from the one I’d reserved—still feeling a spasm of muscle-memory guilt, despite being the only person there.
It was exciting to return to the ritual of moviegoing. But there was also a distinctly I Am Legend feeling to this lonely experience, wandering a once-busy movie mecca (the theater was so grand and gleaming when it was first built, just as I was finishing high school, 20 years ago) that now felt haunted. Or maybe it was me doing the haunting, a lost soul revisiting a long gone place, going about a routine like normal without realizing that time had tumbled on without me.
That melancholy continued as the pre-roll featurettes began. Maria Menounos blared in solicitous tones to an audience of one, touting major spring films that moved their release dates months ago. The previews were more of the same, though a few movies—like Marvel’s Black Widow—advertised autumn intentions. The whole fanfare (minus a few edits) seemed eerily suspended in time, playing in the theater like a rediscovered amusement park lurching back to life—a dusty, dormant machine grinding into motion and filling the air once more with a discordantly merry din. The only real reflection of the here and now was a hastily assembled message about keeping masks on during the show, unless you were enjoying the delicious concessions the theater was not yet selling.
If I’d had my ideal pick of First Movie Back, it would not have been The New Mutants, though I suppose there is a certain symmetry to this one being the sole option. Long delayed and reportedly mired in post-production problems, Josh Boone’s film is another artifact from a once-bright past. The idea was to make a movie set in the X-Men universe that also took advantage of the horror boom, putting a scary spin on a story of people with special, defining powers. And they wanted to make it young, populated by teens (the movie is based on an almost 40-year-old comic-book series). So they brought in Boone, then hot off the barn-singeing adaptation of the barn-burning young-adult novel The Fault in Our Stars.
What happened to The New Mutants between that old dream and the current reality has been documented and speculated about on plenty of geek sites across the Internet, so I won’t go into it here. But all that belabored sturm und drang was ultimately in service of an anticlimax. The movie that’s made its way to theaters is mildly engaging but mostly inert, a wan sizzle reel for an idea rather than the idea made manifest.