Walking into The Darkest Minds, one does not expect to see a time travel movie. But that’s exactly what it is: a vehicle back to a time just a few years ago (circa 2009 to 2015) when movies about teens or young adults becoming revolutionary leaders against oppressive adult regimes in post-war/post-plague/post-collapse dystopias (i.e. The Hunger Games and its many knockoffs) were almost automatically assured of Number One debuts at the box office on a regular basis.
But that time is long gone and more recent efforts (like last-gasp Maze Runner and Divergent sequels or The 5th Wave) already seem like quaint relics. The Darkest Minds can now join that pile: Based on a novel (the first of five or six, of course) by Alexandra Bracken, director Jennifer Yuh Nelson of Kung Fu Panda 2 fame makes her first jump to live-action with a movie that’s not flat-out terrible by any stretch–which differs from some of the follow-ups mentioned above. But it goes over the same worn-out ground as all the other YA sci-fi exercises we’ve seen in recent years, offering nothing particularly new and serving mainly as the setup for a big screen franchise that will never come into being.
The first half-hour or so of the film is its best. In a shockingly dark first act, Nelson lays out how a mysterious disease ravaged the world’s children, killing 99 percent of all youth. The remaining ones are changed, imbued with powers that the government, of course, grades along a spectrum: green stands for your basic enhanced intelligence and is deemed safe while blue (telekinesis) and yellow (control over electricity) are determined to be more dangerous. Most frightening of all are orange (control of other’s minds) and red, the nature of which is left until the end of the film but kind of turns people into… something. Oranges and reds are deemed highly lethal and subject to termination on the spot.
We then meet our protagonist Ruby Daly (Lydia Jewett), a sweet 10-year-old girl who somehow survives the plague and discovers, to her horror, that she is an orange when she accidentally wipes her very existence from her parents’ minds simply with a touch. Ruby is carted off to the government’s solution for problem children, which is of course an internment camp where broadcast propaganda starring the President’s afflicted son (Patrick Gibson) promises a cure. Once there, Ruby manages to make the camp’s doctor label her green to avoid termination.
After six years, during which the role is taken over by Amandla Stenberg (The Hunger Games’ Rue), another doctor named Cate (Mandy Moore) breaks Ruby out and recruits her for a secret pro-children underground organization called the Children’s League. Distrustful of Cate and her allies, Ruby runs away and falls in with a small group of kids headed by telekinetic Liam (Harris Dickinson), electrified Suzume (Miya Cech), and super-smart greenie Chubs (Skylan Brooks). They’re on their way to a rumored safe haven run by a mysterious orange known only as the Slip Kid, but must fight their way past bounty hunters, the military and the Children’s League to get there.
As the three preceding paragraphs attest, The Darkest Minds devotes much of its early going to exposition and overly complicated world-building, although it is done grimly enough to be surprisingly compelling for 30 or 40 minutes. The timeliness of a story that deals with separating kids who are “different” from their families and shipping them off to camps is jarringly effective as well.
But as is often the case, instead of delving deeper into the ramifications of this world (it’s mentioned in passing that the economy has crumbled, but we never hear another word about that), The Darkest Minds quickly establishes Ruby as both an eventual Chosen One and the love object of Liam, with the pair exchanging tedious glances and exhibiting zero chemistry for most of the long second act. It doesn’t help that the latter is played by Dickinson as the latest in a long line of monotone pretty boys, and while Stenberg is an appealing talent, her role is typically passive until the closing minutes of the picture.
The rest of the characters are merely types you’ve seen over and over again in this genre, with poor Gwendoline Christie in particular once again as wasted as she is in the Star Wars films with one or two scenes here as a bounty hunter. You can see all the betrayals and plot turns coming from miles away, as our quartet find the secret enclave and discover (surprise!) that it’s not what they thought it would be. One’s investment in the film diminishes just as the stakes are supposed to be getting bigger.
The lessons about inclusion and learning to appreciate each other’s differences are sound enough, but have been told with more energy in dozens of previous movies. Even giving the kids here X-Men-like powers (some of which tend to work not according to any set rules but in terms of how they service the plot) fails to freshen things up. Most egregious is the lack of a real climax. With the exception of one or two of the characters moving from one side of the board to the other, nothing really changes by the end, because after all there are five more of these waiting to be made if this one somehow manages to strike box office gold. I wouldn’t hold my breath.
The Darkest Minds is out in theaters Friday, Aug. 3.