Dystopian fiction and a young-adult audience are perfect bedfellows, especially when said fiction involves a teenager triumphing over whatever society is keeping them down. It’s hard not to fantasize about toppling your oppressors and losing your chains when your entire emotional pubescent life is structured and controlled by both your parents and the school system, but the comparison starts to feel a little ridiculous the further you get away from that mindset.
Take Jennifer Yuh Nelson’s The Darkest Minds, which is about the super-powered teens of tomorrow being placed in concentration camps by a totalitarian government after the same illness, I.A.A.N., that gave those kids their powers also killed off 98 percent of children overall. Though one could make a comparison to a number of injustices currently being inflicted on “undesirables” by our cruel and unfeeling leaders, The Darkest Minds doesn’t want to be particularly political or controversial — it simply wants to separate the academically gifted kids from the rest of the world and give them pricks to kick against.
As such, it’s probably the most boring example to date of this particular type of YA film, a trite and lifeless exercise made simply because Fox wanted a Hunger Games, but without that icky “complexity” that Susanne Collins work had, and perhaps because they wanted to double-dip on the X-Men concept without having the burden of expensive nerd expectations weighing the project down.
Our protagonist, Ruby (the charming Amandla Stenberg, best known as Rue from the first Hunger Games) was sent to one of those camps after she accidentally erased herself from her parents’ memories using her newfound powers. It was there she discovered exactly how powerful she is — she’s an orange-level mutan- I mean, super-powered kid, which means she can Jedi mind-trick people, read their minds and manipulate their memories — and it was there that she quickly decided to hide this fact from everyone around her, lest they discover the extent of her powers. Six years later, her secret is revealed thanks to a new government-developed test, and, before she’s killed, she’s rescued by Dr. Cate Conner (Mandy Moore), a Resistance member looking to use her power in the fight against the government. Ruby chafes against this, as she gets a weird vibe from one of Connor’s associates, and so she flees into the woods.
It’s there she meets a group of kids just like her (but not as powerful) — telekinetic love interest Liam (Beach Rats’ Harris Dickinson), electricity manipulator Zu (Miya Cech), and brainy nerd Chubbs (Skylan Brooks) — who are looking for a mythical promised-land run by children just like them. She joins up with them, and the foursome hit the road, dodging the government and their bounty hunters, like the villainous Lady Jane (Gwendoline Christie, saddled with another unsatisfying villain role and a truly monstrous wig) on their way to “E-D-0.”
So, yeah, that’s a lot! Nelson leans on her strong young cast hard in order to smooth over the cracks in the storytelling, but the film half-asses the most basic of things. For example, the absence of the children is never truly felt at a societal level, which robs the setting of any power — we never see any glimpses of bereaved parents even though literally 98 percent of the world’s children are said to be dead — and we see more children than adults throughout the film, given that Nelson has set her film in the country, far away from any potential population centers. The camps are made up of mostly children, and the one settlement that we do see is run entirely by young ones.
It’s a “telling” problem that encapsulates a lot of its issues, in that a lot of interesting things are said, but they’re very rarely seen. This is the kind of film where six years pass simply to age-up the protagonist so that she’s old enough to meet the target demographic, so emotions and trauma ain’t really on the minds of the people behind the camera. Perhaps it’d be more palatable if the moments of wonderment that we receive throughout the course of the film, usually involving the kids’ super powers, weren’t handled with all the grace and care of your average Sci-Fi Channel original movie. They would have looked dated back when the original X-Men film hit theaters back in 2000, and it’s almost astonishing that they passed muster. It honestly blows my mind that someone who worked on the Kung-Fu Panda films could make a movie this visually inert, but here we are.
In short, The Darkest Minds is shallow, stupid and derivative of nearly all the YA adaptations that have come before it, and that’s even before we get to the attempted rape that the film begins its climax with. That is a spectacularly ill-advised attempt at seriousness and timeliness in a film that hasn’t earned or prepared its audience for a moment like that, and it sticks out like a sore thumb. Nelson tries to use this moment to open a broader inquiry into the horrible things that a person who can manipulate and control people could do with that set of powers (in which the villain claims that he’ll essentially weed out the bits of Ruby that he doesn’t like so that she can serve him happily), but it directly undermines those with its ending, which takes the old “if you love someone, set them free” adage and literalizes it to a new and creepy depth. The Darkest Minds is nowhere near as toxic as something like Twilight, which essentially romanticized domestic abuse for legions of its fans, and it will be nowhere near as popular (judging by the August release date), but it’s cut from a similar cloth.
Featured image by Daniel McFadden via 20th Century Fox.