Several years after the boom in young adult dystopia movie adaptations comes The Darkest Minds, based on the novel by Alexandra Bracken. This time, the world is affected by a plague that kills pretty much every child, pretty brutally demonstrated in an arresting opening sequence. A sequence that, wisely, doesn’t over-explain, and just gets us into the world as quickly as it can. Five years ago, it would have taken two acts of a movie to set up what The Darkest Minds does here, when the demand was for three or four films in the boxset. Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson and her team are very much focused on one, and it’s to the benefit of the film.
There’s still the traditional sorting hat mechanic to get through, though, and before you can say ‘Divergent’, we learn that the surviving children of this plague each have special powers. Those powers are colour-coded, helpfully, and woe betide you if you come out of the test graded orange. A big flashing message will thus appear on a screen alerting that you must be killed forthwith.
That’s the fate that seems to be facing our hero, Ruby, played superbly by Amandla Stenberg. A swift Jedi mind trick later, and she’s bought herself some time. But she’s soon off into a world full of empty spaces, where surviving children wear colour-coded T-shirts and are held against their will.
Reading those three paragraphs back, if I hadn’t seen the film, I’d be screaming spoilers. But that’s the swiftly dealt with set-up, before we get into the film proper. From that point, Ruby, along with Harris Dickinson’s Liam primarily, find themselves categorised, and facing off against a regime that’s forced them to supress who they are. A regime scared of people being different. You don’t have to look far to see the subtexts here.
But a few factors make it all work. Firstly, the characters here, whilst feeling familiar, are well played, engaging, and worth spending time with. Sure, they’re being chased by homogenous tracers who could have spat out of any movie, but seeing teenagers grow up and realise their range of powers and abilities – yep, subtexts – works here. Tragedy is never far away, although the backdrop of war is more talked about than seen. And there’s a burgeoning romance at the centre of the film, too. You also get a few Harry Potter spoilers for your money.
Now granted, there are moments when the dialogue clunks. Anyone who’s sat through or read a few teenage dystopia stories will also see the pieces sliding into place easily enough. There’s also a moment when Gwendoline Christie appears, goes for a walk, and is never seen again.
But I couldn’t shake the feeling that this is going to be someone’s new favourite film. I can’t pretend it’s mine, because I’ve seen these ingredients on the big screen time and time again. Yet for those who haven’t, this is as good a variant on familiar themes that we’ve seen on the big screen in a while now. Furthermore, I like what Jennifer Yuh Nelson has done here. She shoots things so you can follow what’s going on. She makes wise use of her locations. She allows you time to meet and warm to human beings.
It’s an imperfect beast of a film, certainly. But I found myself – even as someone not entirely in the crosshairs of its target audience – quite warming to it. The leads are very good, the running time is economical, and I’d quite happily sit through more adventures with this lot. Not least because the film primarily focuses on what it’s doing, than overtly setting up a sequel.
The Darkest Minds is in UK cinemas from August 10th.