By now, we all know Hollywood is obsessed with adapting young adult dystopia novels into films (blame Hunger Games, I do). So it was with great fanfare – but little surprise – that its latest attempt to (re)secure the YA-franchise bag, The Darkest Minds directed by Jennifer Yuh (Kung Fu Panda sequels), hit theaters this Friday (August 3, 2018).
I’ll say up front, hereinafter there be (unavoidable) The Darkest Mind spoilers.
Jennifer Yuh’s debut as a live-action director gets off to a great start with a near-future setting that reels you in, holds your attention with an unobnoxious, just informative enough voice-over by the main protagonist and savvy use of news-reel to impart information coupled with tension building visuals and gritty relatability.
The Darkest Minds is based on author Alexandra Bracken’s popular trilogy. But after viewing this film I think it’s safer to say it’s “inspired by” her best selling series
The basics of the film’s plot track pretty closely to the source.
When Ruby Daly (Amandla Stenberg) is in elementary school, a virus called I.A.A.N – affecting kids between eight and thirteen years old – breaks out. This plague kills most of the children worldwide. But, the world’s focus soon shifts from the cause of the virus to the surviving children as they begin exhibiting powerful psychic powers.
Afraid of these “powered” children, the government rounds them all up and forces them into rehabilitation camps under the guise of quarantine and medical treatment.
Children get divided into groups (labeled by color) based on their powers:
Blues and Greens were deemed safe(ish), Yellows dangerous but controlable, Reds were considered dangerous and immediately segregated, while children labled Orange were terminated upon discovery.
In the books, these children are known as the Psi Kids but – in a “no harm no foul” edit – the film leaves this detail out.
After accidentally erasing herself from her parent’s minds on the morning of her tenth-birthday, Ruby is also rounded up and sent to a rehabilitation camp. Ruby manipulates her evaluation to avoid termination as an Orange and pretends to be a green in order to hide in plain sight. Young Ruby, played by actress Lidya Jewett, is tragically vulnerable in her scenes and will have you ready to offer a hand to hold. There isn’t nearly enough of her in the film as the story almost immediately jumps six years into the future.
For years, Ruby is alone and forced to suppress her differences. But the film barely skims the surface of life in the camps or what’s being done to the children there. It’s a mistake that costs emotional investment and is a huge missed worldbuilding opportunity. I’m all for “show over tell” but Yuh barely requires her lead to stretch herself for these scenes. Plus, this is the point in the story arc where The Darkest Mind needed to separate itself from other films of its ilk and fails to do so.
For those who aren’t YA book-obsessed, a movie deviating from its source material isn’t the kiss of death – hell even blockbuster series The Hunger Games often went left of the original to build out its cinematic storyline.
Frankly, I’m of the opinion that sometimes the only way to bring some books to screen is to take the “loosely-based on” route ahem Annihilation ahem.
But there’s deviating and then there’s jumping the car off the tracks and spinning the tires in the mud until the track isn’t even recognizable as anything that would be of interest to you.
Screenwriter, Chad Hodge (Good Behavior) stripped absolutely everything that makes these characters root-worthy, interesting, and unique from this script.
Ruby is not able to consciously control her power but you’d barely know it other than her repeatedly saying it. One way to illustrate it would’ve been to NOT cut out when she (again) accidentally erases herself from the mind of her only friend in the camp.
The script’s lack also makes for a very rough transition into the second act.
On the verge of being discovered Cate (played by Mandy Moore with all the warmth of three-day-old undercooked grits), an undercover agent from an organization knowns as The Children’s League, helps Ruby escape from the camp.
Ruby soon becomes wary of her savior’s motives and runs away. She encounters a group of other powered kids Chubs (Skylan Brooks), Zu (Miya Cech), and Liam (Harris Dickinson) and this intrepid group of survivors travels together avoiding tracers (bounty-hunters) on the hunt for a rumored safe haven where powered kids can live under the government’s radar.
This portion of the film is where the story and cast thrive. There’s humor and action aplenty to carry the story engagingly forward. Yuh makes excellent use of her bag of storytelling tools to insert necessary history via dreams and flashbacks. Chubs is a stand out in every scene for his quick wit and sly tone. But, the dialogue is anemic and that voice-over is suddenly hamfisted and info-dumpy rather than complimentary.
There’s not nearly enough road movie in this script and because of it, Gwendoline Christie’s character tracer Lady Jane and the entire bounty hunter aspect of this world is utterly wasted in the storyline.
The overall story arc (and franchise future) would’ve been better served if the majority of this film showcased this band of badass kids on the run, bonding, and fending off bad guys.
Instead, the plot takes an abrupt shift and powers unhinged towards its climax. Because it turns out that haven they ultimately find isn’t at all what it appears. But in all honesty, I’d stopped being invested long before they reached this point in the story.
Ruby and her friends end up fighting to save themselves, and other psi kids, from the oppressive regime, bent on controlling or destroying them all. Of course, the film again chooses to skip from scattered detail to detail in the hopes you miss it’s not giving you enough to connect the dots of this rebellion-in-the-making.
…and I think it best we skip talking about the Hunger Games-inspired end moment intended to remind everyone the actress’s first dystopian turn was as Rue.
Seriously, I don’t want to discuss it. It took me a good twenty minutes to stop my eye-twitch when I left the theater.
Hodge’s story arc inexplicably ruins Yuh’s great start, excellent pacing, and extremely well-done visual worldbuilding. His script underserves a stellar cast with a staid plot, riddled with holes and left to suffocate on emotionally shallow tropes and awkward dialogue. There’s nothing to commend the storyline crafted to anchor this film.
Not. One. Single. Thing.
And there’s no excuse for it because this trilogy is driven by action, mystery, camaraderie, and most of all, heart. The content was there for the asking. The drama was there for the taking.
The Darkest Minds is what happens when almost everything unique and interesting about a book is ruthless stripped away and replaced with the standard boring fare meant to satisfy diehard fans who just want to see their favorite characters in a live-action setting but will almost certainly leave the rest of the audience cold.
Rating: 2 out of 5
Alexandra Bracken’s latest The Darkest Legacy dropped July 31, 2018. It’s a companion novel and picks up events five years later with now seventeen-year-old Zu.
My recommendation? Skip the movie altogether and check the series out of the library. Then pick things up in this near-future world with Zu in the book.
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