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The Darkest Minds Movie Review

The Darkest Minds (2018) movie poster The Darkest Minds

Theatrical Release: August 3, 2018 / Running Time: 105 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Jennifer Yuh Nelson / Writers: Alexandra Bracken (novel), Chad Hodge (screenplay)

Cast: Amandla Stenberg (Ruby Daly), Mandy Moore (Dr. Cate Connor), Bradley Whitford (President Gray), Harris Dickinson (Liam Stewart), Patrick Gibson (Clancy Gray), Skylan Brooks (Chubs), Miya Cech (Suzume "Yu"), Mark O'Brien (Rob Meadows), Gwendoline Christie (Lady Jane), Wallace Langham (Dr. Viceroy), Golden Brooks (Molly Daly), Lidya Jewett (Young Ruby Daly)


The position of must-see YA-adapted film franchise has been vacant in Hollywood since The Hunger Games wrapped up in 2015.
That dystopian saga fizzled out a bit after its superb first two movies, but it had clearly inherited the throne from the likes of Harry Potter and Twilight. By then it was already obvious that the heir apparent Divergent Series wasn't The Next Big Thing; the final movie there didn't even end up getting made. With other attempts failing to find audiences (Vampire Academy, The Mortal Instruments), the Maze Runner series making it to a third film has been the genre's biggest achievement since Katniss' final two-finger salute.

The industry's latest attempt and certain failure is The Darkest Minds, adapted from the first in a series of six and counting novels by Alexandra Bracken. Whether the books were affected or not, it was easy to detect the influence of the Hunger Games movies on the Divergent films. Darkest Minds feels even more derivative of Divergent, which given the lack of passion for that series seems like a poor place to start, but then Darkest is clouded by bad judgment all around.

In the film's opening, a child in a school lunchroom suddenly dies in a puzzling manner. She is simply among the first of many adolescents to be stricken by something called IANN (Idiopathic Adolescent Acute Neurodegeneration). This troubling outbreak results in many deaths, but it also separates the young people who survive it into different groups, which are arranged as a pyramid. All the survivors are gifted with some kind of power. The bottom and most common color is green, which represents intelligence. Next is blue; blue kids have power over electricity.

Our protagonist is Ruby Daly (Amandla Stenberg, sort of recognizable as Rue from the first Hunger Games), who gets hit with IANN as a kid and instantly becomes unrecognizable by her parents. Like the other survivors, Ruby is sent to an internment camp where armed soldiers keep these gifted kids in line. Ruby is orange, an uncommon and uncommonly powerful designation which means she can control others' minds. She uses that power to get the doctor (Wallace Langham) who is about to give her a fatal shot to reclassify her as green and get her assigned to factory work.

The four young leads --  Liam (Harris Dickinson), Chubs (Skylan Brooks), Ruby (Amandla Stenberg), and Zu (Miya Cech) -- share a smile in  "The Darkest Minds."

Ruby blends in as well as she can, but she gets tipped off by a sympathetic doctor (Mandy Moore, the cast's biggest name who goes missing for the majority of the film)
that she can find safety elsewhere with an underground group called The League. Instead, Ruby gets together with three other ethnically diverse children: the quiet Zu (Miya Cech), the nerdy and no longer aptly nicknamed Chubs (Skylan Brooks), and handsome leader Liam (Harris Dickinson).

The four of them are on the run in a minivan, trying to evade bounty hunters and anyone else wanting to send them to camps (or worse). While keeping her nature secret from the others, Ruby uses her powers to disarm any threat. All she has to do is touch them and when her eyes turn orange, she can persuade them to stand down.

The value in dystopian sci-fi seems to be in self-discovery, as the storytelling inspires young readers to consider their own nature and imagine what they would do in such a situation. But Darkest Minds doesn't leave any room for thought or exploration. It does the thinking for you as it subjects you to the most generic of adventure and romance. If you found Divergent lacking in ideas and intelligence, you'll be blown away by how little of note and interest is contained within The Darkest Minds, which is every bit as uninspired as its forgettable title suggests.

Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who directed DreamWorks' second and third Kung Fu Panda movies, makes her live-action debut here in a way that makes you hope she and DreamWorks are still on good terms. Of course Nelson can't take blame for the banal screenplay that marks the feature film debut of Chad Hodge, a creator of the short-lived TV dramas "Good Behavior", "Wayward Pines", and "The Playboy Club." And if we're blaming Hodge for the script, which is best when it is at its risible worst, then I'm sure the feeble ideas and absence of anything better must trace back to Bracken, whose success in print clearly does not translate to film. In fact, this feels more like a two-hour pilot for a series on The CW than it does a major studio feature film releasing in summer.

The Darkest Minds received a critics-only screening just one night before it opened to the public, suggesting that Fox knows as well as anyone that it has a dud on its hands. And while studios are able to overlook creative failings when there are at least hefty paydays in store (see Twilight Saga, The), this is doomed to disappoint commercially as well.

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Reviewed August 3, 2018.

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