Adapting novels into films is nothing new, but ever since Warner Bros. began the Harry Potter films, a near seismic shift occurred and the search for a new Young Adult box office dominator began. However, for every The Hunger Games, there’s an I Am Number Four. That seems to be the case with the adaptation of Alexandra Bracken’s novel The Darkest Minds, the first of three books, which will likely never grow into anything more than what 20th Century Fox’s released thus far. Given the themes of self-discovery, self-reliance, and love over hate, there’s a great deal that The Darkest Minds succeeds in demonstrating, offering the seeds of possibilities to come. Unfortunately, despite strong direction from first-time live action director Jennifer Yuh Nelson (Kung Fu Panda 2) and an engaging performance from lead actress Amandla Stenberg, as a whole, The Darkest Minds is a splintered experience: trying too hard to be a safe, empowering YA experience while also offering a dystopian view of a society on the brink of war.
A virus of unknown origin plaguing children throughout the United States is terrifying enough, but when the 2% of children who survive the infection develop abilities beyond the norm, the populace dives into crisis. For 10-year-old Ruby Daly (Lidya Jewett), her crisis begins when she wakes one morning to discover that her parents don’t recognize or remember her, causing them to call the local authorities who take her to a detention center where she’ll either be studied or killed. Six years later, an opportunity to escape arises with the aid of Doctor Cate Begbie (Mandy Moore), sending 16-year-old Ruby (Stenberg) back out into the world, unaware of the battle for supremacy raging behind the scenes. Meeting three similarly powered children – Liam (Harris Dickinson), Charles (Skylan Brooks), and Zu (Miya Cech) – she slowly comes to realize that freedom bears as much risk as detainment and must decide what she’s willing to risk to stay free.
Two aspects of The Darkest Minds make the film worth experiencing: Nelson’s direction and the performances from the cast. From the staging of the few action sequences to the smaller, more intimate moments, Nelson imbues the scenes with a hyper-realness, a sense of intensity lacking outside reality. This sense makes the abilities of the children feel grounded instead of ridiculous and the rules of this world tangible. In the first real action sequence, Liam uses his telekinesis to uproot trees and rip up the road to deter vehicles trailing behind them. It’s an effects-heavy sequence that doesn’t feel out of sorts within the framework Nelson presents. Given her work with the latter two Kung Fu Panda films, the two films which similarly possessed hyperreal action set pieces, there’s no surprise there. Similarly, Nelson sets up the character-driven sequences in a way where the emotionality of the scene is offered authentically, instead of feeling in any way manufactured. Much of this is due to the performances from the central cast – Stenburg, Dickinson, Brooks, and Cech – whose characters form the emotional foundation for Darkest Minds. Though the script doesn’t do their individual performances justice, the four leads make the most of what they have, keeping the audience engaged and invested all the way through.
The greatest challenge of any adaptation is the process of determining not just how to tell the story, but how to translate the language of one medium into another. There’s bound to be changes, some snips or cuts, in order for the film to be honest to its new form; unfortunately, that frequently results in a truncated or disjointed experience for viewers unfamiliar with the source material. For The Darkest Minds, it manifests in a script that rushes through almost everything that matters – the set-up, the concepts of the world, and the conclusion. Perhaps the intent was to condense the material to fit in a runtime underneath two-hours, which is great for theaters because it means that can show the film more often, giving both the studio and the theater a chance to make more money. Except cinema-goers who feel unsatisfied by the experience aren’t likely to revisit or recommend the film anyone, resulting in a strategy that’s a disservice to both the story and audience. Chad Hodges’s (Good Behavior) script does an excellent job of setting up the world and introducing characters, yet its desire to get the audience moving onto each new thing undercuts the relationships and tension. Ruby, once freed, meets up with three other powered children wholly by chance and the following chase sequence is thrilling as a heavily armed bounty hunter (think truant officer with a gun), dubbed a Tracer by the kids, barrels down on them. Other than the fact that this individual is violently attacking them with a car and the group of kids know the person as Lady Jane (Gwendoline Christie in another wasted role for her talent), the audience has no reason to care. There’s no build-up, no introduction, no reason for anyone but the characters to care. Again, it’s a thrilling action set piece, which is expected from Nelson considering her experience in action-packed animated sequences, but there’s no tension. In another sequence, Ruby meets and immediately rejects potential ally Rob (Mark O’Brien of Bad Times at the El Royale) and the film spends zero time exploring why Ruby rejects him. It raises far more questions than get answered in The Darkest Minds, which is fine if the film is a thriller, but doesn’t work when the film is trying to be inspirational. Ultimately, the lack of dramatic tension permeates the film as characters are introduced and depart with little-to-no investment; making them props to revolve around Ruby instead of individuals the audience will invest in.
Complicating matters, The Darkest Minds can’t seem to decide if it’s a dystopian experience akin to The Hunger Games, whose entire visage exudes menace around every corner, or an up-lifting teen romance like Love, Simon, replete with pop songs underscoring the “kids will be kids” free spirit of it all. These kids are in a fight for their lives, yet nothing about the experience – save one or two moments of real threat – feels dangerous. There’s something intriguing about the idea that a mysterious virus killed 98% of children and the survivors are granted one of five types of powers, sending the country into a battle between the fearful and the hopeful. That’s interesting. That’s captivating. For some reason, just like Ruby, The Darkest Minds runs from this, desperate to be liked, resulting in a tonal uneven and off-putting experience.
Given the fact that most audiences seem to have forgotten The Darkest Minds released in August, it’s likely that the questions put forth in the first of the trilogy will never be answered cinematically. Of the YA films released in recent years, The Darkest Minds clearly contains potential to utilize the narrative of powered vs. unpowered to explore race, culture, individual identity, sexual identity, toxic masculinity, and societal responsibility. It’s a heavy lift, which the end of the film seems on the verge of exploring, perhaps teasing what comes next. Perhaps if The Darkest Minds had taken its time in this initial outing, given the audience something to grab onto instead of rushing off to the next thing, then maybe those issues would be explored. Perhaps a second and third film would follow. As it stands, we may never know.
Blu-Ray Bonus Materials:
- Remember – A Look Beyond Ruby and Liam’s Last Kiss (Original Animatic by Jennifer Yuh Nelson)
- Deleted Scene
- Gag Reel
- Jennifer Yuh Nelson: Heroine at the Helm
- Character Profiles
- Ruby: Harnessing Hope
- Liam: A Complicated Relationship
- Chubs: Found Family
- Zu: Awakened Abilities
- Clancy: Crafting a Possible Future
- Storyboard to Screen Comparison
- Feature Commentary by Jennifer Yuh Nelson, Dan Levine and Dan Cohen
- The Power of Georgia
- Behind the Scenes in Georgia
- Theatrical Trailer
Final Score: 3 out of 5.