‘The Darkest Minds’ puts an X-Men spin on the typical ‘teens in dystopia’ YA formula, but the result is more derivative than creative.
Kernel Rating: 2 out of 5
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 105 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 12+. This is a fairly typical YA adaptation, with a young female heroine, a love triangle, and children oppressed or injured by adults. Children have superpowers that can be violent or damaging; armies and other military personnel have guns and oversee children trapped in camps; and parents turn on their children. Also some kissing and romantic tension, as well as a situation in which a male character attempts to force a female character into having sex with him. Some cursing and rude language.
By Roxana Hadadi
The YA adaptation craze marches on with “The Darkest Minds,” based on the novel by Alexandra Bracken. The recognizable elements of this genre are all here: young female hero, oppressive adult figures, children forced on the run, a love triangle. From “The Hunger Games” to “Divergent” to “The Maze Runner,” we’ve seen most of this before. And although “The Darkest Minds” boasts an excellent main actress in the form of Amandla Stenberg, she can’t shake off the film’s disappointing familiarity.
In a future version of the United States, most children younger than 20 years old have died, and the remaining children have developed mysterious powers (quite like the X-Men, with some children breathing fire, others controlling air, and some reading minds). When they use their powers, their eyes glow certain colors, like blue, green, and orange, and that’s how society — including the adults, most of whom are afraid of the children and intent on controlling them — identifies them.
Teenager Ruby (Stenberg, of “Everything, Everything”) is an orange, but her powers frighten even her. Brushing against someone could mean invading their mind, or looking into their memories, or accidentally controlling their thoughts — the possibilities terrify Ruby. On her own for years, she’s not sure who to trust, until she meets up with three other kids: fellow teenagers Charles (Skylan Brooks), a green who is extremely intelligent, and Liam (Harris Dickinson), a blue who can control objects with his mind, and the younger Zu (Miya Cech), who can control electricity. “We’re all pretty much orphans. We have each other,” Liam says, and together the foursome decides to travel to Virginia, where they’ve heard of a haven for children and teens like them.
But there are dangers everywhere: a bounty hunter who is tracking them; the League, a group of adults interested in using teenagers to rise up against the government; and the government itself, which has been touting the President’s son, Clancy Gray (Patrick Gibson), as cured of his powers. When Ruby and her friends arrive at their safe haven, they meet someone they don’t expect, whose actions set into motion a series of events that threaten to tear their group apart.
“The Darkest Minds” mimics elements of a variety of other pop culture franchises, like the aforementioned X-Men, the “Harry Potter” series (Rose and Liam even compare themselves to Harry and Hermione at one point), and “Divergent,” in which teens were sorted into certain groups based on their abilities. And it’s disappointing that “The Darkest Minds” never really rises above those influences to become its own thing, with a unique point of view on adolescence or on female heroism. The themes here are the typical YA “adults aren’t to be trusted” and “every teenager is unique,” and while those are commendable, they don’t really bring anything new to the genre.
Still, Stenberg is a promising young actress, and the naturalism and charisma she brings to the role of Ruby brings to mind her excellent turn in “Everything, Everything.” She exudes confidence and sensitivity, and it’s frustrating to see a movie in which her character is mostly unsure of herself and finds herself in a love triangle that is her primary driving force. How the movie uses sexual assault as a character development point is a little questionable, too, and that plot element may be too much for younger teens.
“The Darkest Minds” has some beautiful imagery, like Ruby standing in an overgrown, one-time soccer field with an American flag flapping in the distance, and the cast does their best with the material they’re given (Brooks in particular is fantastic, and steals every scene he’s in with his sarcasm). But the film overall is so derivative of other pop culture and of the YA genre in particular that it never comes together into its own unique experience.
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