The Darkest Minds makes the most of bad source material

Thank goodness the era of the Friedberg & Seltzer parody has long since ended or else we’d certainly be seeing trailers for Vaguely Apocalyptic Young Adult Novel Adaptation Movie. After The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner, Ender’s Game, I Am Number Four, The Giver, and about infinity billion others, the connective tropes which fuel these films have risen completely to the surface and made themselves impossible to look past. Sure, maybe five years ago, The Darkest Minds would’ve felt less rote, but even then, it probably wouldn’t have been received well. Even if one ignores the color-by-numbers template-filling plot devices, this turgid, tired “adventure” fails to excite in just about every way. But that’s okay since this is precisely what you were expecting when you immediately decided not to go see this movie even before clicking the link to my review (which is likely the first time you’d heard of it anyway).

Wait. Are you my niece? Because if you are, you may have heard of it, and you may even find yourself curious to see it. If so, go for it! I hope you love it! I fear you won’t.

Anywho, in anticipation of this movie I checked my niece’s bookshelf to see if she had any of the books upon which this movie is based. She did not. She is such a bookworm that she blazes her way through just about every YA novel/series in existence. Frankly, I couldn’t be more proud. But when I noticed that The Darkest Minds was not in her collection, I knew I could safely assume that this series is, for lack of a better term, bottom of the barrel stuff. Allow me a few sentences to sum up the basic plot, which is flavorlessly exposited to us over the film’s opening few minutes. Ahem…

A disease has ravaged the children of earth. It doesn’t affect adults or something, just kids. I do not know how the disease knows who is and isn’t of age, nor is any cutoff date established to make one immune. Whatever. Unimportant. So 90% of the world’s children are now deceased. The remaining 10% have developed superpowers. These powers are graded by color ranging from green (super smart) to blue (telekinesis) to yellow (control over electricity) to orange (mind control) to red (can shoot fire from mouth, seriously). Surviving children are rounded up into camps where they are divided by color and, um, used for something or other. I don’t know. But the oranges and reds are immediately killed because they are too dangerous. After a freak superpower accident leaves her parents with no memory of her existence, Ruby (Amanda Stenberg) is sent to live in one of these camps. She is classified as orange, but since this means that she can control minds, she manages to have herself reclassified as green. One day, a well-meaning doctor (YA adaptation alum, Mandy Moore), breaks her free from the camp to join a group called the Children’s League, who stand against the camps and want to help the kids do something or other. I don’t know.

A mistrustful Ruby breaks free from Mandy Moore and joins up with a merry band of fellow escapees in search of a mythic location, run entirely by super powered children, where they can be free to just, like, chill. There’s Liam, the hunky blue, Chubbs, the nerdy green, and Zu, the shy yellow. Together they are a force to be reckoned with, which is good, because bounty hunters called “Tracers” are on their tail, and they will stop at nothing to retrieve the hefty price placed on the heads of escapees. Why there is a bounty on any of the kids, or what the end game is for those paying the bounty remains unclear, like most of the lore in the film. It’s okay though, you definitely don’t care.

Your typical young adult adaptation themes are in full force. Friendship, identity, teamwork, standing up for one’s beliefs – the gang’s all here. Also returning from the annals of young adult lore are multi-rotored helicopters, guards who get off on power, and a president played by a well-known face (in this case it’s Bradley Whitford) who, despite being presented as altruistic, is oh so clearly villainous. Standing in for “two lovers, one of whom is dying from a terrible disease” is “two lovers who survived a disease and now have superpowers.” I’m telling you in 2013 this would have felt right at home.

I will hand it to The Darkest Minds on a few fronts. Firstly, the cast all does wonderful work. Amanda Stenberg has charisma in spades (she straight up carried Everything, Everything – a book which my niece does indeed have on her shelf, and a movie that I ::looks around conspiratorially:: enjoyed well enough), and she is about as engaging as one can be when working with lame material. Harris Dickinson, Miya Cech, and Skylan Brooks make for a fun roster of super powered kids. Even when their dialogue is stilted, their scenes ridiculous, they have an easygoing chemistry. Kudos to the diverse casting as well. No two characters look so much the same that it feels inaccurate to the real world, and no one is a token either. In fact, I feel kind of shitty even bringing it up since it feels so natural (diversity really is just accuracy when you think about it), but I guess it’s worth mentioning until it becomes the norm. 

Our director, Jennifer Yuh Nelson (Kung Fu Panda 2 & 3) is making her live-action debut here, and despite working with somewhat limited resources (the budget seems minimal) she shows a strong hand which will certainly open doors for her and other minority filmmakers (Yuh Nelson is a Korean woman). So that’s cool too!

All in all, The Darkest Minds is exactly what anyone would reasonably expect. I have not read the books, but I can assume that fans of the source material will be pleased, and that’s really what matters. Unfortunately for the fans, the sequel which is aggressively being set up in the film’s closing moments will probably never occur. I have a feeling this one is going to tank. Oh well. 

And for the love of god, why do we continue putting Gwendoline Christie into potentially awesome roles and then letting her do nothing with them?!?!? She plays Lady Jane, the most badass Tracer of them all, or so we’re told. She has about five minutes of screen time before she is no longer a concern to the plot in any way whatsoever. Then again, if the sequel does occur, she could really do some damage. Heck, I’ll watch it. 

The Darkest Minds opens in Philly theaters today.

Author: Dan Scully

Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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