Synopsis – Imprisoned by an adult world that now fears everyone under 18, a group of teens form a resistance group to fight back and reclaim control of their future.
My Take – While The Hunger Games series ended up raking millions at the box office, it also released a contagious virus known as YA live action adaptions. While quick to bask in the success, series like The Maze Runner and Divergent raked in some early glory, the rest ended up dying a quick death despite some well-known names attached to them. After all how many times can we watch how youngsters are divided, embedded with power or knowledge, and then use that to fight against all adults who just want to murder them? Here, the film in discussion is also based on the first book of a still running YA series from author Alexandra Bracken, and has a singular task in mind, i.e. to inspire a new age of teens on how awesome it is to wage guerilla warfare against an oppressive government.
While the result is gorgeous to look at, but the film itself has little originality or spark and consists of a cast that just aren’t given the goods to work with. Marking the live action debut of director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, this is the kind of film that has a lot of noticeable plot holes that could have been saved and overlooked by proper world building, but the more one thinks about the film, the more messy the plot becomes. In simpler terms, this film has released in a time where this increasingly frustrating trend has finally run out of steam, as a result it has nothing to lean itself on.
Set in the near future, the story follows Ruby (Amandla Sternberg), who lives in a world where 90% of American born children were wiped out by a mysterious disease called IAAN aka Idiopathic Adolescent Acute Neurodegeneration, while the remaining 10% of survivors end up manifesting powers. As a ten year old, it’s hard for Ruby to grasp exactly what’s going on, especially when she wakes up one day to find that her parents suddenly don’t remember her and ends up being shipped to a government camp with the other kids where they’re tested for powers and are classified by a color, based on the ability that they possess.
While greens are geniuses, blues are telepathic, and golds have electrical powers, even though reds and oranges are rare, they are still considered dangerous and ordered to be terminated on site. As Ruby ends up testing orange she uses her new powers to trick everyone into believing that she is a green and spends the following six years under that guise. That is until Dr. Cate Connor (Mandy Moore), a doctor from the resistance Children’s League helps her escape the camp. However, unable to completely trust Cate, Ruby makes a run for it at first opportunity and finds herself in the company of fellow runaways, namely Zu (Miya Cech), Charlie ‘Chubbs’ to his friends (Skylan Brooks) and Liam (Harris Dickinson), who are seeking a camp run by an orange known only as Slip Kid, to find refuge and possibly fight back against their mistreatment at the hands of the government.
Of course they find the place, and then things go wrong, as they must. The premise of the film is clearly designed to appeal to a broad audience of young people who labor under the daily oppression of their adult overlords, unfortunately, almost nothing works, as the basic elements of film making – script, acting, editing and even the soundtrack choices – are below par here. Every twist and turn is unveiled with exacting predictability in a script overladen with every possible bromide about youth empowerment and the nobility of being different. But there’s a potential problem: young people are almost certainly smarter than the film gives them the credit for and will likely find the whole effort far too lame to be entertaining. Personally watching this film gave me a “been there, done that” feeling, and could not help but see it as just another rehash of all the previous YA adventure series. While the film does earn brownies for its comparatively lighthearted approach to the typical dystopian war film, it still ends up feeling like a wasted opportunity.
But perhaps the weak link is the source material itself. In many ways, the plot is lacking and watching it unfold is like coming into something that’s already started. Ideas are introduced but never allowed to flourish to create something of its own. For example, why are 98% of the kids dead from this disease? What is this disease, where does it come from, and why does it only target children? Is it alien, genetic, or government made? None of these questions are answered or even brought up, but the film expects us to go along with it anyway.
There’s also a lack of conviction from the characters due to the lack of knowledge and connection to the outside world and a vagueness with regards to certain actions. What’s happening to the rest of society? How do parents feel about their children being taken? It even introduces us to Ruby’s horror and courage after the discovery of one of her telepathic powers, that she can make a person forget they ever met her, but with so much to establish for potential sequels, the film never dedicates as much screen time to why she must use this power as they do to how much it hurts.
Adding insult to injury, new characters played by Mandy Moore and Gwendoline Christie are introduced and quickly removed from the equation, surely with more story to tell in subsequent films. All of that may have been okay if the film dug deep into character and relationships, but it doesn’t really. It’s so caught up in plot we don’t connect with most of the characters on screen. So when Ruby meets another group of runaway kids, led by the heroic Liam, there is undeniable chemistry, but their almost instant attraction and flirtation feels somehow alien. It’s supposed to—this is a world in dire need of love—but the juxtaposition with this freight train of a story feels awkward and more than a little forced. A result of which the ending which was meant to land with an emotional wallop, ends up disappointing as the remainder of the film is driven by that romance.
The narrative’s dubious attitude towards the League of Children hints at a mature approach to the notion of child soldiers, and the violence on display occasionally edges towards horrifying – at one point an Orange forces a camp guard to commit suicide, at another whole swathes of children are immolated (but not in close detail). There’s a little more going on under the hood here than the more dismissive takes would have you believe, all which could have been used as better elements of the film. Making her debut behind the live-action camera after directing the Kung Fu Panda sequels, director Jennifer Yuh Nelson also botches the action scenes, including a car chase so incoherently staged that it becomes difficult to track the movements of only three vehicles on a desolate stretch of road. Not that the YA-by-numbers material is often played for thrills anyway. The ending banks on the fact that there will be more films, but the setup is already lackluster and it’s hard to imagine any future sequels being able to play off of what’s already been presented any better.
The cast too are given little to work with, considering its lead by Amandla Sternberg, the young actress who has a solid screen presence. Harris Dickinson, also valiantly struggles to find a character in the archetype he’s playing. However, Miya Cech is cute and efficient and Skylan Brooks makes the most of what he has in hand. But Patrick Gibson hams it up. Known faces like Gwendoline Christie, Bradley Whitford and Mandy Moore are just wasted. On the whole, ‘The Darkest Minds’ adds nothing to a rundown genre and ends up being a derivative, exploitative and uninspiring addition.
Directed – Jennifer Yuh Nelson
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 104 minutes