Imagine a world where over 90% of all children die from a strange, highly contagious disease. Does the government, for the sake of the future, take every precaution to protect the few that remain? Of course not!
No, U.S. President Gray (Bradley Whitford) has the military round up all of the surviving children, who are all carriers of the disease and thus have one of five distinct color-coded powers. Kill the ones that can’t be controlled. Imprison the rest of them in labor camps.
Thus is the dystopia of The Darkest Minds, Jennifer Yuh Nelson’s adaptation of the young adult book series from writer Alexandra Bracken. From the jump, the film gets us up to speed on a breadth of backstory:
Ruby (Amandla Stenberg) is in school when she notices the first kid drop from sickness. On her 10th birthday, her parents gift her a keychain. She assures them that she will be safe, and that everything will be all right. She wakes up the next morning to find that her parents don’t remember who she is. She is hauled away by people in hazmat suits and wakes up on a bus filled with children. The bus unloads onto a compound, where Ruby is instructed about the different colors that signify the children’s powers. Ruby is an orange, which means she should be terminated on sight, but her powers allow her to alter the doctor’s memory and control his actions. She has him change her file to reflect that she is, instead, a green (the “safest” color).
This is the first 15 minutes or so. The plot hasn’t even really started yet, and we are bombarded with an unwieldy amount of information. We will later learn about multiple factions that are at odds with each other: the military, a separatist military offshoot, multiple on the lam groups of children, mercenaries hired to hunt down these fugitives, a mythical group of children who have successfully evaded authorities, a group of allegedly cured children used as propaganda.
This dense accumulation of child-based groups all exist in a state of Virginia that is otherwise completely abandoned. Seemingly, this purge of children has resulted in an economic collapse that has driven people away from their businesses and homes. None of it makes a whole lot of sense, but it is convenient for a plot involving four fugitives on the run across the state.
The plot officially begins when Ruby is sprung free from the labor camp and falls in with three other teens: hyper-intelligent Chubs (Skylan Brooks), electricity-manipulating Zu (Miya Cech), and telekinetic love interest Liam (Harris Dickinson). Their journey has a final destination, and there is reason for them to take said journey. But the plot itself doesn’t progress linear or with a sense of flow. It is clunky, puttering along into diversions and then starting again.
Until the final act, most of the action in the script is derived from happenstance interactions, self-contained set pieces that may have some velocity but don’t drive the story forward into the next beat. And once the four reach a destination, all of these discrete set pieces cease to mean anything.
The ensemble of young actors have charm and chemistry. Stenberg and Dickinson manage rather compelling dramatic performances. But they aren’t given much to work with. Present are the high emotions that often come with the young adult genre, but these young adult themes don’t always mesh with the dystopian world that already struggles to maintain coherence.
Nelson does a good job of making a $40 million or so budget into something that looks bigger. There are blockbuster-level action set pieces, some of which are lively and entertaining. Between these sequences, though, the film reads much more flat, with the characters driving down empty highways until the next obstacle pops up.
The Darkest Minds is the first in a trilogy. The film sets up a sequel, but it doesn’t do so confidently. An entirely new location, with entirely new stakes and characters, is introduced within the last 10 minutes. It’s like a post-credits teaser without the anticipation. And, like with the prior journey of disparate action scenes, this denouement makes the boisterous climax we just watched feel unimportant.
I don’t know if The Darkest Minds will make enough money to green-light a sequel. But I would hope that a sequel would at least bring a level of narrative structure to help out Nelson and the performers, who are done a disservice here by the script. If this comes to pass, then The Darkest Minds will serve as a clumsy prologue.
The Darkest Minds: C-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)