A wholly rote YA sci-fi adventure.
While it may feel like we’re living in the waning days of pop YA sci-fi/fantasy-lit film adaptations (an era ushered in by Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in 2001 and one that lived large throughout the 2000s), the genre, it seems, still has a few flutters of life left in it yet. The pop YA sci-fi/fantasy The Darkest Minds, directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson and based on the novels by Alexandra Bracken, may scratch the very particular YA itch possessed by those who grew up with the genre (and who perhaps miss it), but will certainly not usher in a new, secondary post-modern wave of post-Potter YA adventures. Unless, of course, and by some wild chance, it earns hundreds of millions of dollars.
The Darkest Minds brings absolutely nothing new to the genre. The blunt metaphors for adolescent angst (a staple of the genre) are obvious and straightforward and somewhat bland. The cast is spry and generally charming, but the only standout is the fiercely charismatic lead Amandla Stenberg (a YA veteran having played Rue in The Hunger Games). The genre’s overall undercurrent of harsh military might remains thankfully at a low ebb (especially when compared to less thoughtful films like the thudding Divergent movies). Indeed, there is nothing truly novel to recommend The Darkest Minds other than a general sense of efficient capability. Whether or not a viewer considers this to be a vice or a virtue will depend entirely on their mileage.
The premise may sound familiar to anyone who has read George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards stories, or anyone who has ever thumbed through an X-Men comic book: A virus has swept through the Earth’s population, killing off 90% of people under 17, and granting superpowers to the survivors. Said survivors have been rounded up by a distrustful government into harshly run military camps where they are color-coded based on the levels of their abilities (Blues are telekinetic, Greens are hyper-intelligent, etc.) and where they are forced to work in sweatshop-like conditions. The metaphors for entering high school and/or going through puberty are inescapable, and some of the imagery feels like it was ripped from the headlines.
Our heroine Ruby (Stenberg) is that rarest of beasts, an Orange, who can psychically manipulate others. She will be the one to escape with the aid of a benevolent doctor (Mandy Moore) and will then, in turn, fall into the company of a trio of other superteens living in a van on the lam. Her new companions will, naturally, include a tall and handsome stud – in this case Liam (Harris Dickinson) – who will instantly be intrigued by her plucky tenacity (see: The Host, The 5th Wave, certainly others). Each of them has a different ability, and their eyes conveniently glow in their designated color. From there, Ruby will move to a perhaps-Utopian camp of superteens led by a dubiously virtuous cult leader (Patrick Gibson).
The tropes from The Darkest Minds’ genre are so pervasive, and the character types so shopworn, that Ruby and Liam, in at least one scene, can’t help but comment on their own similarities to their favorite novels. On the cusp of romantic entanglement, our leads comment that Ruby’s story is very akin to that of Harry Potter, while Liam is probably Hermione or Ginny Weasley in this scenario. A wiser film would have perhaps turned that moment into something self-aware and/or deconstructionist. The Darkest Minds allows that cute moment to stay within the realm of funny coincidence. The moment is sweet, but it does point out how little interest The Darkest Minds has in looking past its own banality.
Stories of youthful uprising are plentiful, of course, and while The Darkest Minds has a distinct “just another one” feeling, one can see why filmmakers would want to return to this well in 2018. In the real world, young people are standing up and being more vocal about their mistreatment at the hands of adults than ever before, perhaps displaying the natural social results of a generation raised on books that encouraged dramatic revolution. Because of these thematic underpinnings, The Darkest Minds may be considered the first film in a Second Wave of YA films. Whether it continues remains to be seen.