Film Review: The Darkest Minds

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It’s been six years since the first Hunger Games movie hit the big screen, and the torrent of cheap knockoffs is starting to wind down. The final film in the Maze Runner trilogy landed in theatres with barely a splash earlier this year, and the Divergent series has sputtered to an ignominious halt three films into its planned four-film run. Fellow YA dystopias The Giver and The 5th Wave came and went without anyone much paying any attention. Trudging to the starting line about five years after it feels like it should have is Jennifer Yuh Nelson’s The Darkest Minds, an adaptation of the first book in Alexandra Bracken’s series of the same name.

Let’s start at the end: The Darkest Minds is one of those movies that ends without really ending, taking its viewers right up to the edge of some Earth-shattering confrontation and then yanking proceedings to an anticlimactic halt. Because you have to keep people on the hook for the adaptation of the next book in the series, right?

God willing, there won’t be one.

The Darkest Minds isn’t atrocious so much as it’s just plain dull, which is a worse kind of bad to be. If you’re going to be bad, at least be interesting about it, you know? But The Darkest Minds ascends to new heights of mind-numbing stultification, running its cardboard characters through the paces of a plot we’ve all seen before, insufficiently imaginative to even attempt mixing up the formula.

Picture it: A disease has struck down 90% of the world’s under-17 population, imbuing the remaining 10% with superpowers that gets them locked into camps by the world’s frightened and traumatized adults. Oh-so-conveniently, these superpowers are color-coded—if your eyes turn a certain color, they indicate a certain ability. Even more ludicrous, the colors match up with their respective abilities in a way that creates a ready-made danger chart, ranging from the least dangerous (green=enhanced intelligence), up through blue (telekinesis), gold (electricity control) and the dreaded oranges and reds, so dangerous that they’re supposed to be killed on sight.

So…did people stop being able to have kids after this child-specific plague hit, Children of Men-style? If so, why is everyone worrying about some telekinetic teens instead of, y’know, the inevitable extinction of the human race? The bulk of The Darkest Minds' action takes place six years after the plague first hit; what happened to the souped-up teens who passed into adulthood in the years since? The Darkest Minds' premise gives us some potentially interesting worldbuilding scenarios to ponder. Unfortunately, it would rather spend its time on a generic plotline about a Chosen One who’s reluctantly convinced she’s the only one who can save the world.

The Chosen One here is Ruby (Amandla Stenberg), a rare “Orange” on the run with fellow survivors Zu (Miya Cech), Liam (Beach Rats’ Harris Dickinson) and Chubs (Skylan Brooks), a comic relief character who is not funny. Every note of the plot is predictable: the betrayals, the sacrifices, the ham-fisted love triangle between Ruby, Liam and a third party whose identity would constitute a spoiler. I will just say this: The fact that it’s extremely relevant to the plot that the main characters are under 18 makes it more distracting than usual that several of them are clearly in their mid-20s.

The film is shot well enough, I suppose, DP Kramer Morgenthau lensing the film’s pastoral Virginia setting in a way that avoids the oppressive visual grimness that beset the Maze Runner and Divergent movies. But then there’s that aggressively generic indie-pop soundtrack to take us right back to “Help, this movie’s only 105 minutes long and I’m still falling asleep” territory.

Stenberg and Dickinson, charismatic in other films, appear to be running on autopilot here, hamstrung by their characters’ lack of any discernible original traits. (She’s tough and independent with a spunky side; he’s broody because of a dark past.) Bradley Whitford, filling the “character actor here for the paycheck” square on this particular bingo card, is here for all of three minutes. More screen time is given to Mandy Moore, playing an adult whose motivations towards Ruby and her companions are meant to be unclear. It is hard to get a bead on her character, but that’s more because Moore neglected to inject her performance with any nuance.

Final verdict: Skip it. You’ve already seen The Darkest Minds, even if you haven’t.