It seems inevitable, really, that any piece of work that advertises itself as both young adult and dystopian will be bound for the silver screen some day or another. One examines the main offenders in this regard – the films of Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games series, the Maze Runner trilogy, the abandoned Divergent adaptations – and though I certainly cannot deduce why these titles are popular beyond a superficial level, I surmise that maybe we all get a kick out of watching comical exaggerations of human suffering within the bounds of a patently absurd narrative. The Darkest Minds joins this little Rogues Gallery, and it too tries to depict the best nightmarish future that it possibly can. The central conceit of the novels is superpowers, perhaps inspired by the then still-rising popularity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and so it goes that a mysterious virus has ravaged the younger population of the United States – given that America is the centre of the world here, absolutely no mention is made of how the outside world is faring. The children who survived this outbreak manifest supernatural powers, and when it becomes apparent that no cure can be found, society instead turns to oppressive and jackbooted policies that reach thoroughly ridiculous heights, from incarcerating children within labour camps to dispatching government agents to apprehend and return any escapees.
Ruby, our protagonist, is one of said children, confined to an internment camp from her tenth birthday onwards before circumstances thrust her outside the walls of her prison, and she progresses through all the bog-standard beats that serve to define worn-down tales of teenage wish-fulfilment: meeting with a gang of quirky misfits, accepting her identity, becoming the poster child for a budding uprising, et al. Naturally, because she is the central character of a YA-focused work, she so happens to be among the exceedingly rare few within the story's universe who fall into the category of being Super Special yet having no way to actualise their potential or control her abilities or 'embrace herself' up until a set point in the film. Specifically, she is an 'Orange', the highest on the color-grading list of the otherworldly powers that children possess, running the gamut from Green to Red and beyond and all manifesting in the most utterly depthless fashion possible courtesy of strict categorisation. Greens have boosted intelligence, Golds – altered, perhaps, for reasons of delicacy from the book's 'Yellows' – are little gods and goddesses of thunder, and Oranges can control peoples' minds and alter memories. That portion of the premise, at least, is interesting, if only because blending superpowers with YA shenanigans could be intriguing if done right. It is here, however, that the majority of the interesting elements cease to be. As far as the actual narrative goes, it has just about as much depth as anything else aimed that the crowd that merrily laps up this sort of work. The story is as safe as it is generic, elements that serve only to highlight the film's predictability and lack of properly utilised potential. The plot is absolutely nothing to write home about, being yet another example of gleefully promoting stories of dystopian futures to the point where it seems less like a repetitive trend and more like an ominous warning at this rate, furnished with the same routine tale of rebelling against exaggerated oppression that young adult works seem all too keen to tell, not without forgetting to indulge itself in the mandatory wish fulfilment and power fantasies.
Where the cast is concerned, aside from Amandla Stenberg putting another arrow in her quiver with a solid if rather unremarkable performance as Ruby, and a handful of the supporting cast, especially Skylan Brooks and newcomer Miya Cech as Chubs and Zu, respectively, the performances on display are mostly forgettable and the characters involved are as bland, predictable and one-dimensional as a slab of drywall, with special mention going to the completely transparent pair of Liam and Clancy, the two boys who vie for Ruby's affections in their own ways, or they are utterly wasted despite the billing of their actors. Once more, Gwendoline Christie might well be kicking herself for her third instance of playing a gruff action-oriented woman with barely two minutes of screen time in as many years. The chemistry of the group is, at least, believable, and a few of the wisecracks that they bandied about are amusing, but they do little to mend the wider product. The cast's lack of depth and qualities is, at least in part, attributable to the speed with which Darkest Minds barrels through its story, and the creative liberties it takes to reach the conclusion it presents to the audience. You can always tell more in a book than in a film by nature, and a great many adaptations of novels have often had to make alterations or excisions. The problem here, though, is that much of what was excised served to actually flesh out the characters and the setting, and consequently we are presented with a setting that seems painfully lacking in the human element and in worldbuilding in equal measure. Screenwriter Chad Hodge and director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, a curious choice for such a project considering the medium and tone of her previous work in the Kung Fu Panda series, seem to demonstrate repeated impatience and a lack of a desire to slow down and immerse viewers in the film's world as conversations are skipped over, motivations are altered or removed, scenes are deleted and everything is made all the more hollow just for the sake of arriving at the end credits and moving on to the next instalment – if that ever happens to be made.
Naturally, then, one would think that if the plot were to be found lacking and derivative, the action would at least provide an effective counter, but the sense of spectacle is left wanting. True enough, it might not be proper to throw everything and the kitchen sink into what is presumably the first step of a prospective trilogy, but what limited action there is seems oddly muted for the most part until the climax, which does present a few moments of welcomed creativity – the finale also diverges somewhat from the parent book, after all – but ultimately leaves no lasting impression. As far as other components go, the cinematography is rather standard with few scenes or sequences really standing out, barring a few neat effects tricks and some genuinely striking overhead shots. The soundtrack is passable, but even in this year alone, Benjamin Wallfisch has created compositions far more memorable.
Ultimately, Darkest Minds is destined to probably end up as little more than a forgettable footnote, an adaptation of a book series that may well fail to take off entirely – my mind wanders to I Am Number Four, years prior. The cast deserves better, the finished product has precious little to offer in the way of novelty and overall it just seems like a film that would have been better off if it were made several years prior. If you must sate what curiosity you have, read the book. Otherwise, there are far more effective ways to get your superhero and young adult fixes that don't involve hilariously contrived dystopian nightmares and paper-thin romantic attractions.