There’s “derivative” with a small “d” and then there’s “derivative” with a capital “D.”
The Darkest Minds, the latest – and late by a half-decade – big-screen adaptation of a dystopian YA novel, falls into the second category. Look hard, look long, and you won’t find a single character, plot element, or theme you haven’t seen before. Most of it shamelessly cribbed by screenwriter Chad Hodge, adapting the first book in Alexandra Bracken’s series, and director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, making her live-action debut after directing Kung Fu Panda 2 and 3, from five or six decades of X-Men stories (minus spandex, capes, and cowls), including the feature-film series credited with kick-starting the dormant superhero genre (shout out too, of course, to Blade).
Even a young, spirited cast, led by Amandla Stenberg (The Hunger Games), can’t lift The Darkest Minds from a story so lacking in originality, imagination, or invention that will leave the targeted teen demo bored, indifferent, or near comatose.
When we first meet Stenberg’s “chosen one” character, Ruby Daly, she’s actually offscreen in voiceover narration mode, explaining the events – a global pandemic affecting children, leaving 90% dead and the remainder with superpowers, fearful, reactionary adults, and internment camps (insert topical discussion here) – before finally introducing her character, hiding her Professor X-like mind-control powers in plain sight from camp guards and doctors. When her powers are discovered she, in turn, becomes a target for elimination, followed by the fortunate intervention of a kindly camp doctor, Cate played by Mandy Moore (This Is Us), with a hidden agenda (like all untrustworthy adults in YA fiction).
For a supposed high-security internment camp for dangerous teens, Cate and Ruby escape with practically no effort (a change of clothes, a backdoor leading to a parking lot, and a casual drive through the front gates).
Before anyone can say “convenient plot device,” Ruby leaves Cate and another over-thirty rescuer behind to join a trio of teen survivors, Liam (Harris Dickinson), a telekinetic “blue” in Darkest Minds parlance (unlike Magneto, he can control practically any object, metal and non-metal), Charles (Skylan Brooks), a “green” with a big brain, and Zu/Suzume (Miya Cech), a mute, electricity-controlling “yellow.”
Ruby falls into the ultra-dangerous “orange” category (that mind control thing poses a major risk to a one-time democratic-turned-authoritarian government). Teens with Ruby’s powers apparently number in the single digits, making her a rare commodity, wanted not just by the government, but opposing, anti-government groups that want to exploit Ruby’s powers for their own potentially nefarious ends (insert “been there, seen that” yawn here).
The Darkest Minds shifts from teens-on-the-run to meandering road trip mode almost immediately. Eventually, the four super-kids decide to put their superpowers together and find the mythical East River, a super-secret, off-the-grid, teens-only community (like Eden in the Logan film), a mini-utopia inside a dystopia so to speak.
What they eventually find falls into the expected/unexpected category. Expected because, at least at first, it’s everything they think they want and unexpected because there’s a super-villain to introduce (Ruby’s mirror image, more or less), sides to choose (both leader-led, one more tyrannical than the other), and a sequel/series to set-up.
The Darkest Minds spends the better part of a half-hour setting up the next film (which is unlikely to ever get made) instead of resolving any of the plot threads, character conflicts, or relationships it rushes to establish haphazardly in the first 45-60 minutes. No surprise there either. It’s the blueprint or formula every failed YA adaptation has follow ever since The Hunger Games turned teen-oriented dystopian science-fiction into serious box-office returns.
If there’s any reason to see The Darkest Minds, if not in a multiplex, then when it hits streaming or basic cable in the near future, it’s to catch Stenberg, a talented young performer honing her talents and skills film-by-film. Harris Dickinson, a not-quite-first-timer who gave an impressive performance in the coming-out gay drama Beach Rats last year, and old pros like the briefly seen Bradley Whitford (Get Out, The West Wing) as the U.S. president and fan-favorite Gwendoline Christie (the new Star Wars trilogy, Game of Thrones) round out a strong cast.
For better or for worse, however, The Darkest Minds belongs to its young performers, most of whom give credible, cringe-avoiding performances, but they, like moviegoers who venture into multiplexes this weekend or next, are done no favors by a badly underwritten, yawn-inducing screenplay or direction that fails to create anything resembling forward momentum story wise.