The Darkest Minds and all the images you see in this review are owned by 20th Century Fox
Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson
Can we just take a moment and remind ourselves that YA adaptations (and even movies aimed at a YA audience) are NOT the worst thing to happen to the world of cinema? That would be Eli Roth, but in any case, I think we’re well past the days of Twilight Hate (at least we SHOULD be and anyone still carrying that torch would be kind of sad) and we even got some bug critical success stories like The Hunger Games; none of which I’ve ever seen but I hear are supposed to be good! In the last few years though, things haven’t really looked great for the genre as they still make money, but none of them have had much critical success or frankly leave much of an impact despite earning so much money. Even GOOD ones like A Wrinkle in Time still languished with critics and didn’t really find the audience it needed to. Now we have this movie which stepping up to the plate to take its swing at the box office. Does this manage to be another high point for a genre that should get a bit more respect, or is this the kind of poorly made tripe that (along with misogyny if we’re being frank) made these films such an easy target in the first place? Let’s find out!!
Ruby Daly (Lidya Jewett) is your typical elementary school student in a run of the mill suburb living her normal life when tragedy strikes as the world basically turns into an even MORE proactive version of Children of Men. Not only are people not having babies anymore, but children start to drop like flies from some mysterious disease, and worse yet the ones who survive get super powers. Now sure there’s a certain amount of… let’s say VOLATILITY in kids having the ability to move things with their mind and conduct electricity (as well as have super smarts and fire bending powers because… reasons), but things go a BIT further than some updated Health and PE classes to straight up generational genocide as ANY child exhibiting any sort of powers (I couldn’t quite tell if it was ALL children or just some of them) are brought to military run internment camps for classification, separation, and manual labor. Ruby ends up getting sent to one of them as she apparently has the ability to read minds I think which makes her the MOST DANGEROUS AND SPECIAL ONE EVER, but she manages to somehow keep it under wraps by mind wiping the doctor (you’d think they’d check for that) and getting classified as a lower tiered super person. Years go by and Ruby goes from a young girl to a teenager (Amandla Stenberg) but things come to a head as she seemingly gets discovered as one of the SUPER SPECIAL AWESOME kids and subsequently whisked away from the camp by a mysterious freedom fighter of sorts (Mandy Moore) who then wants her to join her group known as the Children’s League which seems like a good idea considering she’s got nowhere else to go and they’re for the liberation of children from government persecution… but then she gets a weird vibe from the dude she’s with (Mark O’Brien) and she manages to run away from them to find a van full of super powered teens (Harris Dickinson, Skylan Brooks, and Miya Cech) who agree to take her in as they travel to some sort of children haven known as East River where they can… I guess live free? Of course it won’t be an easy trip as there are children hunting bounty hunters (Gwendoline Christie) roaming the streets as well as the military who aren’t about to let one of their kids go; especially if they’re one of the SUPER SPECIAL AWESOME kids! Will Ruby find a new home with her fellow super powered misfits? Just what does the Children League want from her, and are they truly fighting to save these persecuted children? Okay, seriously Fox? Did you just dust off an old X-Men script to make this movie?
Yeah, this is one of the bad ones. As I was sitting through this miserable excuse for a movie, I started to realize that my viscerally bleak reaction was so strong that I needed to take a step back and try to understand where that negativity was coming from. On the surface this has got a lot of the problems that YA Sci-Fi adaptations usually have which is strike one against it. This is clearly B material riding off the success of more popular books and because of that it has a shoestring budget which does nothing to help bring these big ideas to life; and that’s on top of this adaptation feeling absurdly rushed so that nothing has as much depth and breathing room as it needs to feel believable or to have any sort of impact. That already would put me in a bad mood, but what puts this into possibly despicable territory is that such mediocre material has the gall to evoke some REALLY dark subject matter that should not be taken lightly and yet this film fumbles with it mightily. The debate of what subject matter should be dealt with in what genres and by what creatives is a discussion we are constantly having, but to me this is clearly on the wrong side of the argument considering just how shallow the whole movie is which in turn trivializes what it decides to talk about and leaves as background noise things that are ACTUALLY happening to people and should PROBABLY be dealt with in a meaningful way instead of just breezing past it. Maybe there’s some genuine sincerity in this material that I failed to grasp, but I just couldn’t get over how downright underwritten this is and how the script does nothing to justify the use of such dark and relevant imagery. When we’ve got The First Purge, Sorry to Bother You, and Blindspotting fresh in our memories, THIS movie is gonna try to get away with a bunch of half assed bologna!?
There are a lot of things wrong with this movie, but they point back to a single source and that is how completely BARREN this movie is. Some adaptations can feel that way because of how quickly we have to run through the lore, characters, world building, and plot points just to fit them all into a reasonable runtime, but this takes it to a level I’ve never seen before. Let’s just run through a few of the things that this movie clearly establishes. Most importantly, the world didn’t come to an end; there’s still infrastructure, a functioning government, and THE INTERNET, so this is more a HALF-pocalypse which granted is a REALLY interesting approach to take a story (I’m not a big fan of the Fallout style EVERYTHING IS GONE AND WE JUST SCAVENGE STUFF kind of setting), but if society has only KIND of collapsed, you need to make the extra effort to build the world that is still there. There’s NO ONE in this movie as they go miles without seeing a single living soul with the only explanation being that people went to the cities to look for jobs. That’s not the world they set up thugh as this is straight up after the bombs drop style world! If people just MOVED, then why do stores still have shelves full of stuff for scavengers to just steal? Why are our heroes sleeping in a van if there are just abandoned houses all over the place that people left behind? Are there cops in these “abandoned suburbs”? I don’t think so as the only authorities we see are military personnel and bounty hunters (a huge inexplicable aspect of this world as well) and they don’t have the resources to effectively cover HUNDREDS OF MILES OF empty land; land by the way that WOULDN’T stay empty as rich people would MOVE THERE! Again, we’re not talking about a full collapse of society, so there’s no doubt still some income inequality and it’s not like White Flight didn’t ALREADY happen back in the fifties! Once you start noticing how underwritten everything is, you start to pick up on the little details that they couldn’t even be bothered to explain or make believable. There’s a part where they’re listening to a radio broadcast where the reporter says we’re about to listen to an inspiration speech from the President’s son. That speech is literally one sentence; If I can be cured, you can be cured. Think about that. Think about how much world building could have been done if they had an ACTUAL speech there instead of just a bland one sentence statement that tells us literally nothing. It just keeps stacking up as more and more scenes are utterly wasted when they could have MEANT something! They go to a hotel, but no one bothers to explain if they’re crashing in it (i.e. it’s abandoned which could show just how much has been left to the wayside) or if they ACTUALLY paid for it which could have been a moment where SOMEONE who isn’t directly connected to the plot (whoever they checked in with) could have been in the movie to show us a bit of how life works in this new world. Instead, I just kept asking questions that the movie was in no way interested in answering which made it impossible to take anything this movie was presenting us the slightest bit seriously.
Even putting aside the poorly realized world, this is a shallow story that really has no spark of originality to it. Our core four protagonists are pastiches of YA clichés that unsurprisingly don’t feel like they truly exist within the world as it’s established. Sure everyone look model pretty despite living in a van, but even beyond stuff like that they just feel like inexplicable archetypes. We’ve got TOUGH WHITE DUDETM, a nonthreatening black teen with glasses; even Zu feels a bit clichéd as the quiet Asian girl who can also kick ass. It all just feels too cartoonish and stock to fit into such a bleak world and even Ruby as the protagonist doesn’t feel like she has much going for her that we haven’t see in a dozen other characters like this. I don’t remember much about Everything, Everything, but at least she felt like she ENGAGED with the circumstances she found herself in; showing genuine fear of the outside world while also longing for that freedom. Here, no one seems to quite grasp JUST how much danger they’re in and whatever “drama” they have to deal with feels incredibly petty and short sighted considering how quickly they could wind up dead or in camps. Now sure, the whole POINT of these movies IS that drama between characters who might like each other or don’t feel like they belong, but that’s just further evidence that the setting is not compatible with the story they’re trying to tell.
All of that is why this movie is just an unimaginative slog, but what really put it over the top for me are the aforementioned uses of Internment Camp imagery and the co-opting of horrible experiences to tell what is essentially a THE SPECIAL ONE story and an unengaging love triangle. Now as I said before one of America’s most obnoxious past times is dunking on entertainment aimed at teenage girls, so I want to try my best to make it clear why this particular case is a little bit different. When talking about Twilight, The Hunger Games, or even something like The 5th Wave, there’s a certain amount of wish fulfillment and fantastical exploration that is baked into the material. What if I had a boyfriend who thought I was the most precious person on Earth? What if I could be the leader of a revolution or how would I fare if the world started to come to an end? We ALL have entertainment that works for us on that level (I write as I look at my ever growing stack of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson blu rays) and if YA books are the flavor of the month, then so be it. The problem with THIS film specifically is that the fantasy they’re playing with and the quality of the film trying to engage us in it is in no way sufficient to justify such dark imagery; or at the very least, ALLUSIONS to such imagery. Now sure, there is no clear line of what is appropriate parallels to make or backdrops to use for fiction which is why one of the biggest movies of all time is a romance on a ship that did end up sinking and led to thousands of real life people dying, or why Les Misérables is still a popular musical despite being about a revolution that was quashed with bloody efficiency by the French government. Heck, you could probably even make the argument that X-Men which has a similar allegory for persecution is just as guilty of exploiting another group’s suffering to bolster their storylines! I can’t really speak to that as my only experience with them is the movies and they mostly skirt from anything TOO harsh in favor of straightforward super heroics, but with THIS movie there’s just not enough depth there to convince me they actually knew what they were doing when they were alluding to Internment camps, forced labor, child soldiers, sexual assault in prison or (prison like systems), straight up EXTERMINATION OF UNDESIRABLES, and oh yeah, let’s throw in date rape for good measure. These are all things that happen in the movie, but they never feel like they carry the weight they need to in order to not feel exploitative and cynically added.
Look, there are some decent movies aimed at a YA audience (I’m actually quite a fan of Red Riding Hood) and honestly The CW has basically cornered the market with a rather strong lineup of shows. This is an unnecessary addition to the canon and one that will hopefully get forgotten before anyone starts talking about a sequel. Don’t go see this in theaters, especially with so many great films coming out recently, and I wouldn’t recommend you see it at home unless you have a fascination with these movies and want to see just how poorly they can be done. Otherwise, this is one you can completely skip and never look back on. Just let it disappear into the cultural miasma like so many other failed attempts to start a franchise. Then again, I’m still waiting on that Golden Compass sequel…