It’s always prudent, if you’re going to copy ideas from other films, characters and books, not to have your characters discuss those very stories right while you’re pilfering them. It doesn’t take a ‘green’ to figure that out.
When a mysterious virus afflicts the children of the world, killing nearly 98%, the survivors are viewed with suspicion and then outright hostility when they begin to manifest special abilities. On her tenth birthday, Ruby (Amandla Stenberg) accidentally erases her parents’ memories of her, simultaneously revealing her own power and cutting herself off from anyone who could protect her. Seized by the government, she manages to disguise the magnitude of her power for six years until, just as she is discovered, she is rescued by Cate (Mandy Moore) a member of the Children’s League. Fearing she has swapped one form of imprisonment for another, Ruby flees from Cate and joins Liam (Harris Dickinson), Chubs (Skylan Brooks) and Zu (Miya Cech), a group of fellow runaways searching for a fabled safe-zone where children live free from persecution.
Adapted for the big screen, the first novel of Alexandra Bracken’s ‘The Darkest Minds’ series, finds it impossible to hide its inspirations. Despite spending a whole fifteen minute pre-title card preamble trying to explain why, despite all the similarities, it’s really not “The X-Men” it can’t really shake the parallels. There’s a whiff of “Harry Potter” that’s so strong even the characters themselves remark on it while the improbably post-apocalyptic setting and focus on children evoke “The Hunger Games” and even the widescale separation and caging of children nods towards recent American immigration policy.
The testing and escape of children nods directly to “The Maze Runner” and the setting, filmed in and around Georgia, invariably reminds you of “The Walking Dead”. But it’s not just recent young adult literature that’s been plundered for this derivative (yet serviceable) adventure. It acknowledges “Superman II” with a memory-erasing kiss (waving to “Avengers: Infinity War” as it does so) and it even pays homage to the recent “Star Wars” movies by casting Gwendoline Christie as a supposed bad-ass character who’s easily dispatched and ultimately pointless.
There’s an inherent arrogance or perhaps just naivety in setting out deliberately not to tell a whole story but only the first part of a longer saga, especially in the current climate where young adult dystopian franchises more often than not wither on the vine. “Twilight” has been and gone, “The Hunger Games” damn near outstayed its welcome and “Divergent” collapsed under the weight of its own turgidity. The box office and critical reception of “The Darkest Minds” speaks for itself and it’s clear we won’t be getting a part two any time soon, an outcome that was all too predictable.
Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson (“Kung Fu Panda 2”, “Kung Fu Panda 3”) proves more than adept at handling live-action and especially in coaxing winning performances from her young cast, especially the two leads Harris Dickinson and the magnetic Amandla Stenberg who anchor the warmth and chemistry of the main group as they make their way across country to hoped-for safety. The kids’ easy charisma even manages to smooth over some of the clunkier exposition and awkward dialogue that tends to happen when novels aren’t well-adapted for the screen. Yuh Nelson also manages to keep things moving breezily along, smoothing over some of the bigger questions: there’s no real explanation of why the absence of children would necessarily bring the economy to its knees (explored more comprehensively in The Simpsons’ “Marge vs. Singles, Seniors, Childless Couples and Teens, and Gays”), whether people still can have (and are having) children or what caused the ‘incident’ in the first place, a revelation which may have been held back for a third chapter ‘rug pull’ revelation that it will never get to deliver now.
It’s a real shame too because, despite its derivative nature, there’s an interesting story here, or at least an engaging remix of other mythical stories (a technique which worked out pretty well for J K Rowling), that I’d happily watch more of. It’s hard not to think this would have been better suited as a Netflix-style long-form TV show where it could have taken the time needed to really explore the themes and characters instead of trying to cram it into a teen-friendly 100-minute runtime.