On mutant children, perfunctory romances, and getting unceremoniously stuck in bad formulas
The Darkest Minds 20th Century Fox
Director: Jennifer Yuh Nelson
Screenplay: Chad Hodge, based on the novel by Alexandra Bracken
Starring: Amandla Stenberg, Harris Dickinson, Skylan Brooks, Miya Cech, Patrick Gibson, Lidya Jewett, Gwendoline Christie, Bradley Whitford and Mandy Moore
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 44 minutes / 2.39:1
August 3, 2018
(out of four)
Like many movies like it, The Darkest Minds does not actually care about its premise. Or the future it envisions. Or the miracles of evolutionary biology who brought that future into being.
It cares that its central teenage characters are special, but doesn't really care how or why. Their unique abilities, brought on by a cataclysmic outbreak that wiped out most kids worldwide, are comically irrelevant - except inasmuch as they're necessary for the occasional special-effects sequence. The one ability that does have some importance - I'll keep the specifics unspoiled - is used primarily to inject a false sense of profundity into the central romance. The film doesn't care about that, either, by the way. It cares that its two prettiest and most important characters fall in love with each other, but only because this is a requirement of young-adult fantasies. There's no actual effort to make the relationship convincing, but the filmmakers have dutifully marked that obligation off the checklist.
The forces conspiring against all of these kids aren't handled any better. I mean someone's gotta be hunting down the special kids, so naturally it's the big evil government, with their big evil scientists and their big evil bounty hunters.
Not that any of these complaints are necessarily specific to this movie - or to YA fantasy in general. I could be just as flippant about a lot of examples in a lot of genres. Movies tend to fit into tidy templates. Too many choose to lazily follow that template, and The Darkest Minds is one such example. It's just a particularly bad one, delivering 104 minutes of plot points without ever deciding which of them are important, or why.
It's easy to pinpoint the romantic coupling as the biggest culprit, if only because its development comes as such a sudden, disheartening reminder of the mechanics of the formula. Ruby (Amandla Stenberg) has just hitched a ride with a group of on-the-run teens like her, including their de-facto leader Liam (Harris Dickinson). At the end of their first day on the road, we get one of those awkward scenes where the boy accidentally walks in on the girl in the bathroom when she's just gotten out of the shower and she's wrapped in a towel and they stand there stuttering and blushing and pretending not to look at each other and saying things like "oh I'm frightfully sorry, I uh ... I just uh ... I just was looking for, uh ... my toothbrush, yes that's it" and she's like "oh! yes, well ... yes, goodness me ... it's fine, it's ... don't mind me, I'm just ... well, of course, I ... *giggle* ... oh dear ... "
You know, that scene. Which can certainly work in a movie that has done its due diligence getting its characters warmed up. But here, it's not the turning point in some epic flirtation; it's not the awkward demonstration of any built-up sexual tension. Instead, it's the film clumsily announcing what it hadn't the delicacy nor patience to develop more organically. It's a big flashing indicator light that These Two Are Totally Gonna Bang. The scene doesn't earn its nervous laughter or its stolen lusty glances; it's just a clunky way to tell us that we're now moving onto the romantic portion of our story.
The romance is never remotely convincing anyway. It plays out with rote inevitability instead of anxious anticipation. This is no fault of the actors, who provide far more dimension than the script offers their characters. Stenberg is an impressive rising star who seems to have become a go-to lead for teen dramas of all kinds (this is her second of four consecutive lead roles dating back to last year's Everything, Everything, with the other two hitting theatres in the next few months). Opposite her, Dickinson displays the poised emotional restraint and vulnerability that made his breakout performance in Eliza Hittman's Beach Rats so memorable.
But what both performances ultimately reveal is how much more the actors are giving us than the script is giving them. We understand these characters only in the abstract - that is, what Stenberg and Dickinson can get across on their own, as two people interacting regardless of any outside context - rather than whoever they're actually supposed to be, in whatever this story is supposed to be. Ruby is in a rare class of mutant* teen - she can control minds, while most everyone else has a more traditional superhuman ability; y'know, telekinesis, electrokinesis, that sort of thing - and has only escaped government-ordered termination thanks to a rogue freedom fighter played by Mandy Moore. Once she latches onto Liam's gang - along with Zu (Miya Cech) and Chubs (Skylan Brooks) - she hides her power and tries to quietly fit in as they all make their way to a supposed refuge for their kind, led by the mythical savior, "The Slip Kid."
* The movie never uses this word, but given its obvious conceptual similarities to the X-Men, we might as well call a mutant a mutant.
Their eventual arrival at the refuge leads, depressingly, to a half-baked attempt at a love triangle. As if the film had not failed enough already in that department.
Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson (the second and third Kung Fu Panda entries) and written by Chad Hodge (writer/creator of the series Wayward Pines, The Playboy Club and Good Behavior), The Darkest Minds is an adaptation of the first novel in a YA series by Alexandra Bracken. The adaptation process is conspicuously apparent on screen. You can see the film hitting plot checkpoint after plot checkpoint, but it never really picks a lane or finds an idea to really sink its teeth into. It's only ever about the progression of its own plot.
This is a movie in which superpowered beings spring into existence, get monitored and regulated by a color-coded threat-level system, and get thrown into internment camps. (Ruby, as a member of the rarest and most powerful mutant class, is an Orange. There are also Greens, Blues, Yellows and Reds. Red, like Orange, is considered too dangerous to be kept alive.) Epidemics, genocide, massive social upheaval, xenophobia, the ways civilizations deal with threats to their existence and to their understanding of the world itself - this movie is ostensibly about all of those things. And yet it never actually touches them. It remains conspicuously hands-off.