The Darkest Minds, 2018.
Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson.
Starring Amandla Stenberg, Harris Dickinson, Skylan Brooks, Miya Cech, Mandy Moore, Gwendoline Christie and Bradley Whitford.
Imprisoned by an adult world that now fears everyone under 18, a group of teens form a resistance group to fight back and reclaim control of their future.
The live-action feature debut of Jennifer Yuh Nelson (Kung Fu Panda 2 and 3) is destined to be remembered as one of 2018’s most baffling major theatrical releases. An adaptation of Alexandra Bracken’s 2012 young adult novel, The Darkest Minds has the unmistakable whiff of a movie that was shot several years ago and, amid studio hand-wringing, has only now been dusted off and released.
In reality, however, the movie was shot last summer and its production seemed to run fairly smoothly. Fox, it appears, has produced this laughably generic sci-fi fantasy flick with a wimpering hope of rejuvenating the long-burst YA bubble. Unsurprisingly, it’s an effort very much in vain.
To its mild credit, The Darkest Minds does at least open with a shockingly grim hook; a disease has aggressively swept through the U.S. and wiped out 90% of the country’s child population. The survivors, because reasons, are endowed with a variety of psychic abilities, and at the behest of the President (Bradley Whitford), are placed in internment camps in order to control their powers.
It’s not a bad set-up, honestly, but once this horrifying primer is done with, the film settles into far more familiar PG-13 fantasy territory as our psionically-gifted protagonist, Ruby Daly (Stenberg), escapes her confinement and joins telekinetic dreamboat Liam (Dickinson), super-smart comic relief Chubs (Skylan Brooks) and pint-sized electrokinetic Zu (Cech) in attempting to save their kind.
Of course, Ruby is a one-of-her-kind superhero, there are lazy allusions to the Holocaust, an arbitrary romance, cringe-worthy attempts at humour and at least one too many too-good-to-be-true good guys who, shocker, aren’t so good after all. It is a movie so slavishly devoted to the beats these movies tend to follow it could be tweaked into a genre parody with just a few added winks at the audience.
It is a dull, dispassionate tour through the YA checklist, one saved only occasionally by some not-bad visuals and a solid lead performance from Stenberg (who memorably played Rue in the original Hunger Games). She’s convincing enough of an actress and boasts enough of a screen presence to occasionally prop the film up through some thoroughly daft moments, even if her skills are ultimately steamrolled by the woefully unambitious screenplay.
Her acting partners are also a mixed bunch; Beach Rats star Harris Dickinson makes for an utterly leaden, charisma-free love interest, rendering most of their playful, sexually charged banter unintentionally laughable. Skylan Brooks’ jokester feels no less an also-ran addition to the line-up, with his wise-cracks proving high on cringe and low on wit. The most interesting supporting character, the adorable Zu, meanwhile spends the entire movie mute and barely feels like anything more than a sketch.
Elsewhere, the brilliant Bradley Whitford makes a thankless, forgettable cameo as the POTUS, Gwendoline Christie shows up for a few scattered minutes as an assassin wearing a terrible wig, and Mandy Moore has just hints of engagement as a doctor fighting against the government.
In fact, the only actor who seems to be having any fun at all is Wade Williams – best known for playing Bellick on Prison Break – whose cackling, hammy line readings result in most of the film’s few joyful moments.
And that’s really the problem here, as is the problem with so many YA movies; it’s a fundamentally absurd premise that nevertheless takes itself dead-seriously, and is all the more risible as a result.
As the characters stone-facedly rip through reams of exhausting exposition, it’s hard not to either giggle or roll your eyes at the misplaced portent. If the tone were closer to something from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with a navel-gazing regard for its own silliness, it’d be easier for audiences to embrace the regurgitated tropes.
That’s not to forget the movie’s utterly shambolic product placement, which includes some truly world-class shilling for Nissan. There’s a shot in this movie where, no exaggeration, the heroes’ Nissan mini-van slows to a stop right in front of the camera, giving the Nissan logo pride of place at the centre of the frame for a good few seconds. In one of the most hilariously shameless product name-drops in recent cinema history, Chubs then straight-up mentions the “Nissan mini-van” as though it’s the most natural comment in the world.
Even at barely 100 minutes in length, this film may well leave your mental stamina drained long before it’s over. It benefits from a game lead actress and it looks decent enough, but ultimately The Darkest Minds is a soulless box-ticking travelogue of young adult tropes that arrives years after the genre gravy train has dried up.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.