The Darkest Minds is a solid enough dystopian sci-fi YA adaptation, elevated by Amandla Stenberg's performance, but it won't revive this film trend.
Thanks in part to The Hunger Games, the early and mid-2010s saw a rise in Hollywood adapting young adult dystopian science fiction stories to the big screen. Following The Hunger Games - and its even more successful sequel The Hunger Games: Catching Fire - both Divergent and The Maze Runner received high profile adaptations. However, The Hunger Games saw diminishing returns in its final two installments, Divergent's third entry was such a flop the series was never completed, and the The Maze Runner's trilogy capper opened earlier this year to underwhelming reviews and box office returns. With additional franchise non-starters like The 5th Wave, it seemed safe to say the Hollywood craze had died. However, 20th Century Fox now releases 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. The Darkest Minds is a solid enough dystopian sci-fi YA adaptation, elevated by Amandla Stenberg's performance, but it won't revive this film trend.
The Darkest Minds follows Ruby Daly (Stenberg), a 16-year-old who grew up in a world where a mysterious disease killed the majority of children under the age of 20 - and those who survive discover they have abilities. On Ruby's 10th birthday, her abilities manifest and she accidentally wipes herself from her parents' memories so they don't know who she is. She's sent to a government-run camp for the surviving children, where they're sorted by colors according to which powers they have: green for heightened intelligence, blue for telekineses, yellow for manipulating electricity. There are two other colors for classification - orange and red - and when Ruby's classified as an orange she learns kids with those abilities are killed immediately.
Ruby uses her powers - the ability to manipulate minds, memories and emotions - to convince the camp she's a green, and she flies under the radar for six years. However, when the camp finally learns she's been hiding in plain sight all those years, she's broken out by Dr. Cate Connor (Mandy Moore), a member of the Children's League. According to Cate, President Gray (Bradley Whitford) keeps the public in the dark about what's really going on with the kids, using his "cured" son Clancy (Patrick Gibson) as a manipulation tactic, and the League means to shed light on the situation. Not trusting Cate or her associate Rob (Mark O'Brien), Ruby escapes them and the bounty hunter Lady Jane (Gwendoline Christie) to hitch a ride with a group of kids like her. Along with Liam (Harris Dickinson), Chubs (Skylan Brooks) and Zu (Miya Cech), Ruby travels in search of East River, a haven for escaped kids run by the mysterious Slip Kid.
There are a number of parallels between The Darkest Minds and fellow YA properties like The Hunger Games and Divergent: teens who live in a world where they're segregated due to their abilities/natures find allies, friends and family in others like them, and together they rise up against an oppressive government power. However, where Hunger Games and Divergent are set in a distant future, The Darkest Minds is set in an alternate present and near future world that has quickly fallen into chaos. As a result, the film must explain and justify how the world has transformed so drastically in such a short time. Though the justification doesn't take too much of a leap to believe, The Darkest Minds spends a great deal of time on exposition and world-building. Because there is so much to explain about the world of The Darkest Minds, the film moves through much of it quickly with voiceover monologue and expository dialogue exchanges. Ultimately, though, the world still feels very underdeveloped.
But, where The Darkest Minds script, written by Chad Hodge (Good Behavior, Wayward Pines), rushes through the more dense, world-building aspects of the film, it takes the time left to focus in on the characters and their relationships. In order to ground a story in a dystopian world such as this, there must be a well-rounded character at the center, and Ruby is meant to be that character. Though the script isn't completely there in terms of creating a well-developed character in Ruby, Stenberg's performance is strong enough to make Ruby a compelling protagonist that viewers can follow and root for. Further, Stenberg is surrounded by strong performances from the supporting cast - especially heavy hitters like Moore, Whitford and Christie, though they're severely underused. The true charm of The Darkest Minds comes from the main four, who don't get nearly enough time together but still manage to showcase a heartwarming found-family dynamic. The most important relationship, though, is that of Ruby and Liam; there's plenty of chemistry between Stenberg and Dickinson to pull it off, and their charm brings some much needed lightness to the dystopian world. While the script and story of The Darkest Minds may be weak, the movie is elevated by the performances of its cast.
Further, director Jennifer Yuh Nelson helps to elevate the source material by bringing the world of The Darkest Minds, and the powers of the kids, to live-action with interesting visuals. Since many of the kids' powers aren't necessarily visually interesting - like the heightened intelligence of greens - the film showcases their abilities by having a character's eyes glow their respective color when using their abilities (which also serves as an explanation for why the government would use a color classification system). This is used to great effect in terms of helping set The Darkest Minds apart through its visuals, and bringing something new to the screen. It's especially effective in the quieter moments, when viewers wouldn't otherwise know a character is using their powers. Nelson has a sharp eye in directing The Darkest Minds and it's best showcased in how the abilities are displayed, but the smaller, non-sci-fi moments also work just as well, offering the film the balance it needs to stay rooted.
Ultimately, the biggest weaknesses of The Darkest Minds may be the result of it sticking too closely to the book on which it's based. 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. With a story and world like The Darkest Minds, which requires a great deal of explanation and build-up before the actual action even begins, pacing can prove to be an issue. Unfortunately, The Darkest Minds doesn't quite nail the pacing it needs, rushing at times to relay all the key information about its world or to move the story forward. When the movie does slow down, usually to focus on Ruby or her relationship with Liam, The Darkest Mind offers a glimpse of what the film could have been. However, with too much going on and too much to explain, The Darkest Minds essentially gets bogged down in staying true to the book and relaying its world completely.
As a result, The Darkest Minds will best appeal to fans of Bracken's novel. In terms of faithfulness to the book, the film excels, though there is still plenty that was left out. Further, because of the themes of kids learning to love who they are and use what makes them different to make the world a better place, The Darkest Minds will also likely strike a chord with younger, teenaged viewers. The story of friendship at its core is perfect fodder for a teenage audience, and The Darkest Mind delivers an entertaining enough adventure to be enjoyable. However, for those not already predisposed to enjoy teen-geared media, The Darkest Minds may be summer popcorn fun, but is by no means necessary viewing. Some may have hoped The Darkest Minds would revive the dystopian sci-fi YA trend, but, unfortunately, it doesn't seem likely.
The Darkest Minds is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It runs 103 minutes and is rated PG-13 for violence including disturbing images, and thematic elements.
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- The Darkest Minds (2018) release date: Aug 03, 2018