How’s this for an original idea: an inexplicable pandemic hits the world and 98% of children die without warning. The remaining 2% gain various superpowers but are hunted down by the government. The unlucky children who are caught live in dark and Orwellian prison camps without any freedom, slave labor to an evil regime. The lucky ones get together in small villages, trying to live in kid-only harmony while staying hidden from the military. The children with powers are divided out by color, with “greens” being super smart, “blues” having telekinetic powers, “yellows” being able to control electricity, “reds” having pyrokinetic powers and “orange”, the rarest and most dangerous, being able to control other people’s minds.
Yeah, we’ve seen all these tropes before in so many movies, from the daring Japanese cult film ‘Battle Royale‘ to the mega-hit ‘The Hunger Games‘ to the dark ‘Divergent‘ series to the oft-confusing ‘Maze Runner‘ trilogy. That’s the core problem with this movie adaptation of ‘The Darkest Minds’: there’s nothing new, nothing original, nothing particularly engaging at all.
The film revolves around Ruby Daly (played by Lidya Jewett as a child and Amandla Stenberg as a young adult) and starts with her celebrating her tenth birthday with her loving parents. The child-killing plague has already hit and young Ruby uses her nascent mind control skills to alleviate her parents anxiety for her welfare. It backfires, and she finds herself in a government run prison camp for children with powers.
It’s a dark and grim place with faceless adults screaming at the children and beating them even as they perform the most menial of prison labors. Why? We’re not supposed to ask why this is how the government would utilize these children with such interesting powers. Ruby meets an idealistic doctor Cate (Mandy Moore) who helps her escape. Then Ruby connects with a group of other transient children, eventual love interest Liam (Harris Dickson), cute Asian child Zu (Miya Cech) and the nerdy “green” Chubs (Skylan Brooks).
After some on-the-road adventures, they find their way to a semi-mythical child-only encampment that seems idyllic, and Ruby finds herself the subject of special attention by the camp leader Clancy (Patrick Gibson). The smarmy frat-boy Clancy is the son of the US President and we hear, again and again, how he was “cured”, which is clearly untrue since he’s — surprise! — an orange, just like Ruby.
Is he trustworthy? Does a bear use an outhouse and then wash his paws afterwards? Not so much. In fact, it’s so not a surprise that Clancy has an evil intent that it’s hard to understand why they didn’t just have a sign over the camp entrance announcing that it was going to end badly.
Traveling down a cinematic path where other films have already covered the story isn’t inherently a problem, but when there’s nothing new added, it does end up becoming problematic and boring. Worse, ‘The Darkest Minds’ has so many flaws in both production and story that there isn’t enough space on this website to document them all.
Let’s touch on a few, however. First, the acting is almost universally miserable, with a special cranky shout-out to young Lidya Jewett who barely has the acting chops of a middle school thespian. I know, if you don’t have anything nice to say and all that, but without being able to really sell the audience on the opening scene, the rest of the film is left without an emotional anchor, a critical element in any young adult movie.
There’s also the painfully illogical storyline. Why does the government fear these children? Why wouldn’t they stay with their parents? Heck, why wouldn’t the government enlist the parents to keep the kids in line? Why aren’t parents seeking their children after they go missing in the camps? For that matter, why are these government prison camps so ghastly? Why are the bad guys always gruff white dudes, while we’re asking questions?
To be fair, the production overall is quite competent and moves along at a reasonably satisfying pace. There are some good action sequences, but there are also a whole lotta “teen angst conversations” that are a trademark of the young adult genre. There’s also a fun, albeit one dimensional performance by the terrific Gwendoline Christie (from ‘Game of Thrones’) as the “Tracer” bounty hunter Lady Jane (though when something happens to her there’s not even a single moment of ethical consideration by any of the characters, nor is it ever referenced again in the film).
‘The Darkest Minds’ is barely a made-for-TV level movie. Spending money on production can’t hide the massive holes and illogic of the storyline and with lackluster performances adding to the woes of the movie, it’s no surprise it’s being slapped with a ghastly 17% score on Rotten Tomatoes.
If you loved the book, maybe you’ll like the movie. But if you’ve never heard of the series, go watch something else at the cineplex instead. Just about any other choice is going to prove more entertaining.
Oh, and if you really loved the book, good news: the film ends with the most overt “yes, we’re planning a sequel” sequence I’ve seen on the big screen in years. I just hope that they get some new writers and actors before they go into production for that one…