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THE DARKEST MINDS (2018) review

August 5, 2018

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written by: Chad Hodge
produced by: Shawn Levy and Dan Levine
directed by: Jennifer Yuh Nelson
rated: PG-13 (for violence including disturbing images, and thematic elements)
runtime: 105 min.
U.S. release date: August 4, 2018

 

From the trailer and the marketing, it looks like it might be too late for teen-centric sci-fi thriller “The Darkest Minds”, but 20th Century Fox is including “from the producers of “Stranger Things” and “Arrival”” will draw viewers. It won’t. They’re apparently unaware that super-powered teens are everywhere nowadays, so there better be a unique or different angle, or a cast with exemplary talent. None of that is found here. This movie, based on a popular series of YA books by Alexandra Bracken has none of that. That’s disappointing not just because it was a waste of my time, but because I was hoping the first live-action movie from director Jennifer Yuh Nelson – who did a fine job helming the last couple “Kung Fu Panda” animated features – would deliver something that would show her as a standout talent. Instead, we get cliche characters uttering stale dialogue in an unintentionally laughable storyline.

In a future America, adults are scared of teenagers because a percentage of them have developed superpowers they feel threatened by. Yes, it’s the old ‘they fear what they don’t understand’ scenario. These powers are show up in a small percentage of youth, after 98% of the population under twenty are eliminated by a pandemic called IAAN (don’t ask me what it stands for – its rattled off and then ignored altogether, an approach that will develop into a pattern) and now the government is rounding them up and locking them in detainment camps (hmm, sounds familiar) where they’re studied and separated using color codes that determine their threat level. Green is for the smart ones who are manageable, whereas orange and red are deemed a threat because their powers offer more of a physical threat or require more visual effects, or both.

NOTE: If you forget about the color-coded process, Nelson and company remind you throughout the movie when we see the pupil of the super-powered teen’s eyes emanate a with an appropriate colored glow representing their skill/danger level. It’s kind of cool at first, but after awhile it feels like you’re playing stoplight.

 

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We’re told the gist of the set-up during an opening montage, where the voice of our eventual protagonist, Ruby Daly, tries to catch us up to speed. Throughout the movie, Ruby will be sixteen-years-old (as portrayed by “The Hunger Games” alum Amandla Stenberg, promising yet treading in mediocre material), but she’s first introduced to us as a young girl who becomes horrified when she accidentally memory wipes her parents one morning, erasing her from their minds. That life-altering event starts out as an intriguing power, yet it eventually winds up as a laughable resemblance to a recent blockbuster maneuver called The Thanos Snap. It’s during this vague opening montage that we hear from President Gray (a sleepwalking Bradley Whitford), who comes across as a supportive voice, stating “our children” will be safe (his own son developed powers and is being ‘worked on’), yet he exudes a suspicious vibe that will reveal itself later on.

Once young Ruby’s (Lidya Jewett) powers are discovered, she’s taken away by mysterious figures in Hazmat suits to a government compound that houses other kids like her, a place where specialists can run their inevitable tests to determine how dangerous Ruby is to the world. As it turns out, her threat level is “orange” and she has some form of mind-control and telepathic powers, as well as that ability to erase herself from people’s minds, but only when she’s touching them with her hand. She uses this power to change her status to “green” in their records and remains this way for five years, but when her cover is blown she finds unexpected help from Dr. Cate Connor (Mandy Moore), a kind adult who helps Ruby escape with the promise of her joining a group called The Children’s League, an underground organization supposedly trying to help plague survivors.

Uncertain about this group and the doctor’s motives, Ruby manages to escape and hook up with three kids her age who are traveling on their own. It turns out they have powers as well and soon Liam (Harris Dickinson), a blue (telekinesis and psychic abilities), Chubs (Skylan Brooks), a green (super smart), and Zu (Miya Cech), a yellow (electricity powers) are on the road, hoping to find a rumored safe haven for kids like them, led by a guy named Slip Kid (Patrick Gibson), something of a messianic figure who promises all superpowered teens an adult-free life of acceptance and freedom. Yet as Ruby and her new friends make an attempt at this life, they predictably learn that things aren’t all that they seem and must protect each other as they begin another search for their place in this world.

It didn’t take long for me to feel sorry for fans of the book who come to this movie hoping to the same kind of enjoyment they experienced reading Bracken’s books. I have to believe her books are much better than what is presented here, since I quickly became quite bored and annoyed by the story. This adaptation couldn’t even pass for a Cliff’s Notes version of a book, more like a sixth grade book report by a student who didn’t read the book and is just making stuff up. Hodge’s screenplay isn’t concerned with viewers understanding what is going on in this movie and Nelson is never able to rise above standard conventions of the genre and cheesy melodrama that permeates throughout. There’s no interest in detailing why a plague would result in teens getting superpowers, other than it serves as another a way to create a rift between teens and adults, injecting an unnecessarily heavy metaphor throughout the movie.

There are subplots introduced in “The Darkest Minds” that Hodge has no clue what to do with. The concept of bounty hunters (their employers are unclear), hired to retrieve any superpowered kids out there on their own comes to play. We only see one such bounty hunter, named Lady Jane (Gwendoline Christie, who clearly drew the short straw here), who comes across like she auditioned for a road show production of “Grease” in the “Mad Max” universe and ending up feeling like an extra from “Drive Angry”. The way Liam and Chubs (a nickname for Charlie) talk about her is more threatening than she ultimately turns out to be and since she’s abruptly dismissed out of the picture, she doesn’t matter anyway. For the life of me, I can’t fathom what faithful readers would be satisfied by this adaptation.

 

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The movie is problematic in its pacing and unintentionally laughable sequences provided – two come to mind: a phony dance party sponsored by the Slip Kid and his gang and a hilarious bit where red-status kids are used like fire-breathing hounds – but these elements could have worked if the acting was tolerable. I’m sorry to say, it’s not whatsoever. There is potential for promising performances somewhere in the actors who portray this ‘fantastic four’, but their deliverable is serviceable at best and often quite bland and wooden. There’s very little charisma or chemistry in the bunch, and most of the time it felt like they were “acting”. The most egregious offenders were Dickinson (a token love-interest for Ruby) and Gibson (a token antagonist/attempted rapist for Ruby), who both vacillated between stiff and broad, failing to focus in on any dimensions or nuance of who these characters are. It’s painful stuff to watch that just pulls you out of the film – that is, if you’re still awake.

“The Darkest Minds” doesn’t just suffer from a case of bad timing – what with YA adaptations like the “Divergent” series dying an embarrassing derailment recently into limbo – this is just a dumb screenplay from start to finish, one that should elicit sighs and groans throughout. That’s certainly the effect it had on me. It’s hard to stay positive or optimistic when it feels like the story is slowly sucking the life out of you. In such a situation, one hopes that maybe a likable character or two will make up for a flailing movie, but no such option is given.

I went in with some trepidation, hoping that Nelson’s first crack at live-action would prove to be something promising. The fact that I caught myself snoring before the movie’s midpoint is proof that that didn’t happen. Nelson deserves better than this – but then again, she said “yes” to this – so maybe what she deserves is someone in her life who can stop her and tell her she deserves better than this. It’s both¬†hilarious and embarassing to see the movie close with sequel teasings, knowing full well that’ll never happen. By the time the end credits come, there is a sense of relief knowing all of our questions will never be answered and we can just move on. It makes me feel bad for any author who finds their work get such an awful attempt at a cinema franchise.

Studios know when they have a dud, so they hope a release date can either silently set the movie out to sea or capitalize on something that’ll bring viewers in. Is it any coincidence that Bracken’s fifth and final book in her Darkest Minds series was released one week before this movie comes out?

 

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RATING: *

 

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