After an unexplained disease kills the majority of the world’s children, the ones who remain all develop certain abilities (which include increased intelligence, telekinesis, electrokinesis, mind control and pyrokinesis) and as a cure is supposedly being developed, the young adults of the country are rounded up, put into camps, and are segregated based on what abilities they possess. Unbeknownst to everyone else, sixteen year old Ruby (Amandla Stenberg) is an “orange”, a rare case with the ability to control minds, and after an unexpected ally helps her escape, she soon finds refuge with a small group of companions, including the telekinetic Liam (Harris Dickinson), and as they are hunted down, the friends attempt to reach a safe refuge and to get to the bottom of just what the higher powers are planning.
Apparently following in the footsteps of such film franchises as The Hunger Games, Divergent and The Maze Runner, The Darkest Minds is yet another literary adaptation of a Young Adult series (one that I’d never heard of), adapting Alexandra Bracken’s book of the same name, but the problem is that we’ve clearly had our fair share of YA dystopian films by now and The Darkest Minds doesn’t do enough to make itself stand out in this overcrowded and past-its-prime cinematic market; the film is exactly what you’d expect: there’s a mysterious contagion, the kids are affected and put into groups (much like Divergent, I’m guessing), sinister government powers want to use them for something, there’s teen romance, a predictable twist, and the gifted protagonist initially has a small journey to embark on but they soon get drawn into something far bigger, finding themselves to be the only one who can save the day. And throughout all of this, there are those very familiar lines of dialogue in which the characters state such hackneyed expressions as “your power is a gift”, “they cannot control/divide us” and “we are who we are”.
The problem is that the main story is ultimately too weak and at times nonsensical and inconsequential; it starts off with that mysterious global affliction (the origin of which is annoyingly never explained – we’re just meant to accept it) and then goes on to the predictable YA journey involving young heroes and the big bad government who want to use the kids for their own nefarious ends but making matters worse is that far too much of the film is focused on the emerging relationship between the two leads, not paying enough attention to creating a proper story, and annoyingly, despite all the horrible things that are happening in the world, the young adults somehow still find plenty of time for inexplicably frolicking around a mall (bonding montage!) or going to a big “school dance” in the refuge!
The direction from Jennifer Yuh Nelson (Kung Fu Panda 2 and 3) is alright as she never lets the film descend into complete tedium but at the same time, the balance between drama and romance is uneven since the relationship between Ruby and Liam dominates too much of the film and when lighter moments occur, with a joke or two, those moments are forced and there’s not enough genuine humour or warmth in the film’s overall tone. But to be fair, all of the heavy emotional stuff, though blindingly obvious, is never insufferable and at the very worst of times, I found myself gently rolling my eyes a few times.
Despite all of the issues with the forgettable story and uneven tone, the film’s actors are a strong bunch for the most part and in the leading role of Ruby, Amandla Stenberg (who is no stranger to YA adaptations, having starred as Rue in The Hunger Games!) is a perfectly likeable protagonist. For the most part, she’s a sweet girl who’s thrust into these horrible circumstances, trying hard to understand her power, protect others and to return home to her family and in these moments, it’s easy to support her as she bonds with her new friends, showing both compassion and uncertainty but towards the end, she displays genuine bravery and resilience. Overall, Stenberg often manages to elevate the so-so material quite admirably, showing her maturity and acting talents despite all the annoying tropes and cliches that she has to contend with.
The rest of the central group of heroes are all solid performers but their characters aren’t particularly strong: Harris Dickinson acts well and is easy enough to like and support as the telekinetic Liam but he’s quickly reduced to simply being the obligatory romantic interest and concerned protector, Miya Cech manages to be supportable despite having no lines of dialogue as the electrokinetic Zu, and Skylan Brooks is a nice enough chap playing the intelligent
Erkel Charlie/Chubs but his character clearly gets the short end of the stick because, as a “green” (one of a group of young people with increased intelligence), he has very little to do alongside the kids with actual superpowers and even in the big scene where his one “ability” is put to use, it’s actually Ruby who does all the work! I mean, if you look at the film poster below, he just stands there on the left while the other three look all cool with their superhero abilities on display!
The rest of the cast is serviceable without exactly setting the screen on fire but the actors who play the antagonists fare quite badly; the main antagonist, revealed towards the end, is hissably nasty though their character motivation is weak and nonsensical, Wade Williams is completely over the top as the generic, snarling, angry bad guy “The Captain”, and poor Gwendoline Christie (sporting a truly awful hairdo) does herself no favours as the tracker Lady Jane – your basic, bland, “ultimate badass” hunter character who’ll stop at nothing to hunt down those pesky kids.
Going back to the positives, The Darkest Minds is actually really nice to look at and it doesn’t fall into the trap of being all murky, gloomy and grey just because it’s a YA dystopian story; Kramer Morgenthau’s cinematography is one of the film’s strongest assets as the action sequences look good and there are also plenty of peaceful and tranquil shots which break up all the doom and gloom and provide some pleasing visuals (heck, the poster that I included at the top of this post is particularly lovely to look at) and complementing these praiseworthy shots, Benjamin Wallfisch’s score also works surprisingly well as it provides just the right amount of tenderness and emotion in the scenes between Ruby and Liam, never veering off into mawkishness or sickening schmaltz. Finally on the positive front, the finale (though predictable and reminiscent of a certain other popular 2018 film) is actually quite touching – one of the more affecting moments of the film.
So all in all, The Darkest Minds isn’t a complete disaster as it’s aesthetically pleasing, the acting often elevates the unsteady material and it all starts off well enough but the story is unfocused, weak and complete with all the elements that we’ve come to expect with book-to-film YA adaptations and at the end of the day, it’s a fair attempt at creating another cinematic franchise for young adults (the finale is an obvious cry out for future films) but there’s not a lot that you’ll actually remember after watching. In all fairness, haven’t YA dystopian cinematic universes had their day?