The young adult novel adaptation was once at the pinnacle of cinematic popularity. “Harry Potter”, “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games” helped turn the concept into one of the biggest guaranteed cash grabs in Hollywood with every studio trying to grab their own YA franchise the same way they’re trying to copy the Marvel Cinematic Universe now. But somewhere along the way things went wrong and now the YA adaptation is one of the hardest sells in the business with studios trying to revive it more than cash in on it. That brings me to “The Darkest Minds”, 20th Century Fox’s attempt to try and squeeze whatever’s life is left from the YA craze with a formulaic and derivative dystopian adventure that pretty much hits all the notes you would expect, for better or worse. So, does that make “The Darkest Minds” a truly boring retread or does this film stand on its own despite its clichés as a fun big-screen experience? Let’s find out. This is my review of “The Darkest Minds”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“The Darkest Minds” takes place in a dystopian future where a pandemic has killed off most of the children in the world. Those youngsters who have survived have developed special powers. Threatened by the potential of these children, the government sets up internment camps to house the youth splitting their power classifications into colors with those designated “red” or “orange” killed or weaponized without prejudice. Ruby (Amandla Stenberg) is an orange with the power to experience other’s memories and even manipulate their minds. She hides her true abilities from her captors for years until one day she is found out and an anti-government doctor name Cate Connor (Mandy Moore) helps her escape. Now on the run and unsure who to trust Ruby joins a trio of escaped powered children, Chubs (Skylan Brooks) a knowledgeable “green”, Zu (Miya Cech) a “gold” who can control electricity, and their leader Liam (Harris Dickinson) who is a telepathic “blue” who soon finds himself infatuated with Ruby. The four try to escape bounty hunters and even other powered youths as they attempt to find sanctuary eventually leading them to a camp for similar youngsters that may be more than what it seems.
So yes, there’s a lot about this movie that’s borrowed, repetitive and completely unoriginal but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a good time watching the final result. Personally, I’m a huge fan of the YA genre for the most part. I don’t enjoy every franchise but even as I’ve gotten older and the book’s messages of teen angst and young love don’t apply to me as much anymore I still find charm in what they have to offer. The same can be said here with “The Darkest Minds”. In a different time I feel like this movie would have been a cool introduction to concepts we now see as clichés. Despite feeling derivative everything from the separated child factions to the powers themselves are still cool pieces to the story. That said though it’s almost the like the filmmakers knew these clichés were so familiar they didn’t really need to elaborate on them and the movie is better off for it. Despite everything this movie borrows from other properties of the past it honestly doesn’t spend a whole lot of time on setting the stage for something we’ve already seen many times before. We all know the situation, we’re all familiar with the powers and the stakes and we just want to see the plot progress. I can compare it to “Batman v. Superman” which threw in the unneeded rehash of Bruce Wayne’s parents’ deaths in the opening. It was a waste of time. We all already knew that happened. We’ve seen it so many times before. Thankfully this film doesn’t bog itself down like that and instead sets the stage in the first fifteen minutes and we’re on our way. It’s fun in its own special way and even the powers looked really cool on screen for a film of this caliber.
I didn’t mind the acting either although I will admit its young actors doing what young actors tend to do in these films, just enough to be slightly memorable but not enough to really make a notable mark. Amandla Stenberg who actually portrayed Rue in “The Hunger Games” returns to her dystopian roots this time taking the lead as Ruby who has spent less time familiarizing herself with the world around her and more time trying to stay under the radar as a hidden orange. She is joined by other young actors like Harris Dickinson, Skylan Brooks and Miya Cech who all make up a pretty decent group of heroes we can route for. They each have their own quirks and personalities that in some ways come from their powers or their ability or inability to master them. None of them really fall through the cracks and while the performances are nothing special they’re also not phoned in either which is more than we could ask for in the YA genre to begin with these days. I actually truly enjoyed Stenberg’s performance as we see her evolve from meek, scared and insecure teenager to a more adult and confident woman who has to embrace her powers in a way that might surprise you by the end of the film. She’s definitely the best part of this movie and should a sequel be green lit I’d love to see where she takes this character next considering how this movie ends.
One of the most charming things about “The Darkest Minds” is that it does eventually find its own footing and identity and honestly it does it pretty quickly. What starts off feeling like every other YA movie out there quickly takes a turn to chart its own path eventually feeling like a much tamer combination of the “X-Men” series melded with “The Walking Dead” and “Divergent”. It successfully touches on themes of sacrifice, self-forgiveness, redemption, identity and, of course, conflicts similar to racial segregation and division in society. It doesn’t really go anywhere new with these ideas but it’s on par which, again, is more than we really could have asked from such a film these days. I also heavily enjoyed the love story between Liam and Ruby which culminates in an incredibly emotional moment in the finale that for me was just fantastic. It takes a common love story cliché and turns it on its head. The whole theater, or the maybe ten people who were in it with me, were yelling at the screen when it happened, and I have to admit I wanted to as well. It’s not “Infinity War” jaw dropping by any means…not even close in fact although I have to admit there are some similarities that sadly not enough people are going to realize because they probably won’t watch this movie. But it was still incredibly satisfying for me and it makes me a little sad we likely won’t see it resolved in a future film.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
Alright so as much as I did have fun watching this movie as a simple source of escapism and a reminder of a lot of what I love about the YA and dystopian genres in general there’s no getting around the obvious problems. First off, and most obvious of all, “The Darkest Minds” is still extremely derivative. Almost every idea has been seen before not just in books but on the big screen from the separate factions to the superpowers, the surprise but not really a surprise villain, the explosive final showdown and even the love story are all nothing new. “The Darkest Minds” gives these tropes and cliches a personal touch, but in the end it’s a story made up of bits and pieces of pretty much everything else that has been popular since the year 2000. As I said before it’s beyond its time. If this had been released years ago it may have beat a lot of movies to the punch and established the formula rather than borrowing it. Instead it’s overshadowed by everything that preceded it and doesn’t try hard enough in any way to be anything but what it felt like it needed to be to cash in on the hype that long ago burned out. As watchable as it is “The Darkest Minds” is, simply put, nothing new in any way and that is its biggest sin.
On top of that the pacing is all wrong. I mean I praised the movie for rushing through the first fifteen minute to set the stage but then it hardly ever slows down and when it does it still barely takes a breath. “The Darkest Minds” fits everything it can into a tight timeline including car chases, character introductions, the required moment of levity and happiness in a deteriorating world, and even the love story I so much enjoyed is incredibly rushed. The only places where the movie takes its time are the buildup to the final conflict and the really cool final scenes involving Ruby and Liam. That’s it. Otherwise the movie barely takes any time to breath and properly develop anything. The goal is to get from point A to point B and that seems to be it which I’m not really surprised about considering this is the first live action directorial effort from Jennifer Yuh Nelson who is most known for leading the second and third “Kung Fu Panda” movies. Those films were also strangely paced for me. However, those movies targeted a younger demographic so the pacing felt more appropriate. YA movies are supposed to respect their audience a bit more and we’ve seen in other franchises that filmmakers weren’t afraid to slow things down and give viewers a moment to digest what’s happening. “The Darkest Minds” offers opportunities for this but never moments long enough to really take a breather and settle in for what’s next. It’s just bang, bang, bang, scene after scene, conflict after conflict. It’s rushed and that makes it difficult to invest in the story on a deeper level.
There’s really not much else to it. No matter how fun or enjoyable you may find “The Darkest Minds” it’s truly nothing unique or new. It has its moments but none of them help it rise above the cliché’s or tropes or become anything remotely close to fresh or revolutionary. It’s sad too because I do believe this could make for a decent trilogy, but not like this. Still this is one of the VERY rare cases where I did not read the book before viewing the film and with that in mind I give the movie credit for making me want to pick up the novels to not only see what I missed from the first book but how the story continues. I can completely understand the criticisms that this is simply a bland retread of familiar concepts and themes and as much as I might want to I can’t give it a pass on that. “The Darkest Minds” lacks imagination and heart for much of the story and settles for the basics which may rightfully leave it lost in obscurity for the foreseeable future. I still recommend it however. It has its moments and the actors are charming in their own way making the best of a mundane script and screenplay. The third act is where things really pick up and the final moments did leave me wanting more especially when we see what becomes of Liam and Ruby. It’s a take it or leave it kind of film that I’m not disappointed to have seen even though I’ve seen it all before.