Directed by: Jennifer Yuh Nelson/2018
Well, another year, another teenage tale of a dystopian future. Unfortunately, this genre is giving us diminishing returns. This truth can be applied across the board from box office returns, recycled narrative arcs, to lackluster special effects. Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who ably directed the animated features Kung-Fu Panda 2 and Kung-Fu Panda 3 tries her hand at a live-action version of the novel, The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken, but falls short of what she accomplished in animation. With a screenplay by television and musical writer Chad Hodge, this film seems a better fit for something Netflix might find success at marketing, rather than a theatrical release aiming to compete with the likes of Mission Impossible: Fallout, or even the nostalgic Christopher Robin.
This tale is about a mysterious outbreak among the children of society at has caused the deaths of 90% of the world’s children. Others, known as survivors, have either been treated by the CDC, such as President Gray’s (Bradley Whitford-Get Out) son, or else rounded-up into camps where they can be kept safe. Ruby (Amandla Stenberg-Everything Everything, The Hunger Games) is one of the newest to arrive at the camp after having an episode at home that resulted in her parents not even knowing who she was.
At the camps, the arrivals are put through a battery of tests to determine if they are a blue, green, red, or orange. The color designation is based on their abilities that come with this outbreak, or, in a clever twist from the writers (sarcasm), the color their eyes glow when they are manifesting their new powers. So basically, those who don’t die, learn to use their powers. The camps basically are a way for the government to eliminate a potential threat (what if those kids with powers turn on us?), or use them for some military advantage. Reds and oranges are targeted for immediate termination, and Ruby is an orange.
Enter Cate (Mandy Moore-Saved, Tangled), a doctor at the camp who helps Ruby escape, only to reveal she is part of a broader subversive network called “The Children’s League” who are trying to help the kids get out of the camps. Ruby eventually leaves them and runs into Liam (Harris Dickinson-Beach Rats), Chubs (Skylan Brooks-The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete), and Zu (Miya Cech), a group of kids who are out searching for a mysterious community run by escaped survivors like themselves where they can be free. All the while, they are being pursued by bounty hunters, including the notorious “Lady Jane” (Gwendoline Christie-Game of Thrones, Star Wars: The Last Jedi).
The simplicity of the dialogue and the sheer amount of plot holes are too numerous to count, and only the truly darkest minds, or those that have blacked out while viewing the film, will be able to look past them. We are never really given a sense of what this mysterious outbreak is. The divisions of colors and abilities is much like the Divergent series who divided their teens into groups based on abilities. Like The 5th Wave, The Maze Runner, Divergent, and even The Hunger Games, The Darkest Minds seems to criss-cross its way through all of its cinematic predecessors. There are political elements like all of the above mentioned films, and the typical dystopian meet-cute and resulting conflicting love-triangle that will threaten to tear down everything around them. In some ways it also felt like they were borrowing heavily from The X-Men. The twist isn’t one, and the film ends with the typical set-up for future installments given that there are multiple books in this series. Those who haven’t read the books will have no knowledge of why this set-up exists and will find it presumptuous on why a film this bad would think that future exploration in its world are necessary.
There are some bright spots, however. Despite all of things to loathe about this, and really any other teenage dystopian plot since Catching Fire, the cast are endearing. Amandla Stenberg, who everyone loved as Rue in The Hunger Games, is just as likable here. The relationship her character has with Liam seems to cover some familiar territory as Everything, Everything from the “we are meant to be together but circumstances may keep us apart”, but on the whole it is hard to not to like her. Harris Dickinson, likewise is likable as the “do-the-right-thing” Liam, as is little Zu, played by Miya Cech, as the girl with the electric spark (literally).
Skylan Brooks, who was fantastic in The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete, is turned too much into the comic relief here, but does more than enough, despite very little character development in the script, to ingratiate himself to the audience. Bradley Whitford and Mandy Moore are basically just names to add to the marquee, as they don’t have much to do here (especially Whitford), presumably setting up bigger involvement down the line. I don’t think this film will give them that chance. Gwendoline Christie is given the Capt. Phasma treatment, just like in Star Wars….lots of build-up, without the chance to truly show her formidable villain side. Patrick Gibson also figures prominently in his role of being President Gray’s cured son Clancy, but I won’t say anything more in case you do catch this film later on.
While I found this film, based completely on the cast and not the script or direction or anything else, more compelling than the Maze Runner sequels, this is another film in the overcrowded teenage dystopian dustbin that needs to suffer the same fate as the Divergent series, and not even continue.