The craze of YA (Young Adult) adaptations really kicked off with “The Hunger Games”. With its success came the even more successful sequel “Catching Fire”. Both “Divergent” and “The Maze Runner” followed in it’s footsteps and became the best of the YA adaptations by receiving it’s own high profile films. However, “The Hunger Games” saw diminishing returns in its final two installments, and “Divergent’s” third entry was such a flop the series was never completed, and the “The Maze Runner’s” trilogy ended with “The Death Cure” by opening earlier this year to unfairly underwhelming reviews and box office returns. Additional failed YA franchise non-starters were attempted like “The 5th Wave”, it seemed safe to say the Hollywood craze had died. However, 20th Century Fox hopes to revive the genre with it’s release of the “X-Men” influenced “The Darkest Minds”, an adaptation of Alexandra Bracken’s novel of the same name that’s in the same vein as “Hunger Games”, “Divergent” and “Maze Runner”. Although out of the bunch “The Darkest Minds” is a solid enough dystopian sci-fi YA adaptation that falls in the middle of not as great as “The Maze Runner” films but a good attempt as “Divergent” was and not being a stinker like “The Hunger Games” franchise.
A film like “The Darkest Minds,” in which children have superpowers and the government is “out to get them”, looks a lot like other superhero movies and YA adaptations, and it’s loaded with a ton of metaphors for youthful oppression. “The Darkest Minds” keeps it simple, efficient, and for the most part effective. The film takes place in a near future where a mysterious virus has killed 90% of America’s children, leaving the remaining 10% with abilities and powers. Some are superhumanly intelligent, others can move things with their minds, and some can exude electricity, and others, like Ruby Daly (played by an incredible young actress Amandla Stenberg, “The Hate U Give”), is one who can control minds. The government is absolutely terrified of these kids who have the power to take over the world if they wanted to. They enact a system where they round up the surviving youth into horrifying internment camps. At these camps they are separated by color: green clothes for smart kids, blue for telekinetics, yellow for ones who can control electricity, orange for the more dangerous ones with abilities and red which are more rare but are deadly powerful. All of them are forced to work in sweatshops within the camp.
After Ruby escapes she teams up with a group of superpowered kids: telekinetic Liam (Harris Dickinson, “Beach Rats”), intellectual Chubs (Skylan Brooks, “The Get Down”), and electric young Zu played by Miya Cech, of “American Horror Story” (who I wish had a bigger part, she was awesome with her electricity powers). The group goes on the run, in search of refuge from their oppression. Of course going on the run means danger is around every corner and many people are after them. “The Darkest Minds” can be a really smart movie. It has a lot to convey to its young audience, and the strong cast puts their all into illustrating those themes and to bring their characters to being earnest and believable. One of the smartest things that this modern story manages to do is keep focus on Ruby and her new found friends. Harris Dickinson is terrific as the main romantic interest Liam. Both Harris and Amandla are terrific together, and when the story is on them, it is far more engaging than one would expect. Amandla Stenberg who stars in her fourth YA novel adaptation following “The Hunger Games”, “Everything Everything” and one of this year’s best performances and films “The Hate U Give”. The film is certainly elevated by her performance. Amandla is quite sympathetic as Ruby, her performance managed to make me care. Even when they introduce a weak and unconvincing romantic interest revolving around the mysterious and potentially villainous Clancy Gray, the actress manages to make it work. That brings me to my first big problem of the movie, that the character of Clancy is poorly explored and gets practically no screen time until he decides to turn “villainous” in the last 20 minutes. Not the young actors fault though it’s thanks to the less than stellar script.
Directed by “Kung Fu Panda’s” Jennifer Yuh Nelson in her live-action debut. The efficiency with which director Jennifer Yuh presents the material makes the action sequences clear and conceptually sound, but presented without any flare, gravitas or excitement. The film still has its share of disturbing moments in it’s action scenes, most of which involve kids being gunned down in cold blood. The romantic scenes rely on the natural chemistry between Sternberg and Dickinson which is very good, but fail to evoke deep emotional intimacy. The modest production values looks no more grander than a sweeps week episode of a CW series. But the world designed with their modest budget by Nelson and screenwriter Chad Hodge, looks like it could’ve been ripped out of a Chris Claremont comic. Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson follows the same pattern as the YA films that came before, right down to a series of pop songs filling in the spaces between the action and romance. Nelson is still finding her footing behind the camera, especially when it comes to the generic action sequences, but she knows enough to lean heavy on her stars to deliver emotionally. While those qualities certainly won’t set the film apart, it’s similarities to Marvel’s “X-Men” are strong enough to possibly launch a brand new superhero franchise for the folks at 20th Century Fox, and clearly that’s what they are counting on and hoping for.
Ultimately, the biggest weaknesses of “The Darkest Minds” is that the film moves along much too quickly. It doesn’t take it’s time to take a breath. When adapting a novel to film, the screenwriter and director must cut out a great deal in order to condense the story down to a 90+ minute movie. When you have a story and a world like “The Darkest Minds”, that requires a great deal of explanation and build up before any of the actual action begins, pacing is an important issue. I come back to the fact that “The Darkest Minds” doesn’t quite nail the pacing it needs, rushing to relay all the key information about its world and being more concerned with moving it’s story forward. It moves through much of it quickly with voiceover monologue and expository dialogue exchanges. Ultimately, the world still feels very underdeveloped. However, with too much going on and too much to explain, “The Darkest Minds” essentially doesn’t give us enough time for it’s world building.
It is one of the better YA adaptations compared to the wave of lesser knockoffs. The open-ended conclusion fits as both a bookend to a one off movie or leads to a sequel that promises Ruby’s eventual evolution, it remains to be seen whether “The Darkest Minds” will ever reach that point.
GRADE: ★★★1/2 OUT OF ★★★★★