The Darkest Minds is the latest entry in a genre looking a little worse for wear as of late. Young Adult adaptations haven’t thrived since Harry Potter wrapped in 2012 and The Hunger Games bowed down as an almost $3 billion-grossing series almost three years ago. For every Maze Runner, there is a Beautiful Creatures and despite starting strongly, the Divergent series couldn’t even conclude its story due to dwindling box office figures. Twentieth Century Fox has taken a punt with The Darkest Minds, adapted from Alexandra Brackens’ novel of the same name, and with eyes on a franchise, does the latest release bring anything new to a genre very much in need of an energy boost?
When the world’s children begin exhibiting mysterious and intense superpowers resulting in the death of 90% of those under 18, the US government demands that citizens hand over any surviving children. They are then classified based on their psionic abilities, with Ruby Daly labelled an orange: the most dangerous category, possessing the ability to enter and control the mind of others. After escaping the internment camp, they work to find East River, a rumoured safe haven for children like themselves. Marking Kung Fu Panda director Jennifer Yuh Nelson’s first foray into live-action, The Darkest Minds is one of the year’s worst films thus far.
Derivative and vapid, The Darkest Minds is everything a Young Adult adaptation should be embarrassed to be. A sorry excuse to mimic previously-laid genre footsteps, it is as subtle as a sledgehammer and just as messy, an exercise as void of all originality. Failing to put in the effort and with a storyline haphazardly thrown together from genre conventions and tropes, it is a dull and lifeless rehash of superior franchise titles without the creativity to set it apart from the crowd. Divergent meets Maze Runner, with dashes of the X-Men series and a moment or two recalling Avengers: Infinity War, The Darkest Minds is a messy amalgamation that somehow manages to take elements from decent-enough films and really shit the bed. It’s an abysmal cash-grab that demonstrates the very worst in Hollywood franchise-building.
I’m unable to say whether Chad Hodge’s screenplay compounds the issues found in Brackens’ source material, or whether he creates the problems himself. What I can say rather confidently though is that this may be the worst screenplay to be put on our screens in the past 12 months. It’s a truly dreadful effort: wince-inducing writing causes the audiences’ eyes to roll at an increasingly alarming rate, with flat characters delivering even flatter dialogue, unable to generate any empathy towards characters built purely on archetypes and broad brushstrokes. The narrative is tissue-thin and, while at the risk of sounding as repetitive as the film itself, extremely predictable: there is no flair or deeper meaning to any of it and beyond some half-hearted allegories – more accidental than purposeful – the whole slog is meaningless and boring.
Like a house of cards in the middle of a tornado, everything comes down, crashes and scatters, despite the actors tasked with elevating this insipid material giving it their best effort. Amandla Stenberg is a talented soul but Hollywood has been unable to capitalise on her skill following her breakout role in The Hunger Games; similarly, Harris Dickinson attempts to bring some gravitas to proceedings and he is charming at times – but the forced romance is inept and Dickinson (and Stenberg, although she does have more to do elsewhere) is stranded trying to convince us that Ruby and Liam’s relationship is genuine and not simply a tick-box exercise that goes on to stitch together the most unbelievable love triangle to disgrace the genre in some time. Supporting performances from Mandy Moore, Patrick Gibson and Gwendoline Christie fail to enliven the film any, with Gibson’s turn especially toe-curling and foreseeable.
With material as tedious as this, even the greatest living directors would struggle to salvage a film worth seeing – but giving the content to a first-time live-action director (Jennifer Yuh Nelson) is particularly harsh, without the skill and creativity to make the best out of a dire situation due to limited experience. Her direction is lacking in flair and substance, shot and directed in a way that restricts what we see on screen to necessity. It’s not challenging and it’s not exciting. It’s the very barest of bones and part of me is disappointed for Nelson that she didn’t have more sturdy material to contend with in making her debut.
In conclusion: The Darkest Minds
Dull and recycled at best, incoherent and vapid at worst, The Darkest Minds is one of the worst misfires of this cinema year. For a genre that has stagnated beyond recognition, Minds sure does hammer home those conventions and tropes to remind you of superior efforts, making this shameless imitation all the more exasperating. While not ideal, a film can feel like it’s retreading old ground but still find the narrative and thematic space to say something new – but there’s nothing remotely interesting to be said in this one, leading to a situation that becomes increasingly frustrating as every excruciating minute ticks by. Minds is an utter sham and an embarrassment for all involved. Easily one of the year’s very worst, The Darkest Minds makes Divergent look like The Hunger Games.