As long as writers keep cranking out YA novels set in dystopian futures, Hollywood will continue seizing on them in the hope of coming up with a franchise in the vein of “The Hunger Games.” Some of the knock-offs have found moderate, if not blockbuster, success—the “Deviant” and “Maze Runner” series both did reasonably well. But beside them one has to stack up bombs like “The 5th Wave,” “The Giver” and “The Host,” among others, which became unintentional one-offs after their initial installments tanked.
The latest attempt to replicate the “Hunger Games” model is “The Darkest Minds,” adapted by screenwriter Chad Hodges and director Jennifer Yuh Nelson from a book by Alexandra Bracken. Derivative, predictable and dull despite much hectic action, it ends with the foreshadowing of a sequel you know will never come, the very definition of a hoped-for series that arrives pre-embalmed.
The premise is that an epidemic of some sort has killed off most of the world’s children, and the few survivors have been rounded up by the government and put in detention camps. Why? Because they suddenly develop extraordinary powers, like telekinesis and mind-control, that could be employed to dangerous ends. Once in the camp they are categorized via a color-coding scheme according to the nature of their new abilities; those deemed potentially lethal to others—the oranges and reds—are summarily executed.
But one of the oranges, who can enter others’ minds and even compel them to follow their orders, escapes detection: ten-year old Ruby Daly (Lidya Jewett), who had accidentally wiped her parents’ memories of her, is summarily picked up by the government’s jackbooted thugs and carted off to what amounts to a prison-like workhouse. She escapes immediate termination by invading the mind of the examining doctor (Wallace Langham, whom you might remember from “CSI”) and “persuading” him in Obi-wan Kenobi fashion that she’s not a dangerous orange but a benign “super-smart” green instead. Six years later, and now played by Amandla Stenberg (the afflicted teen of “Everything, Everything,” and no better an actress this time around), the poor girl is slated for permanent removal when her imposture is discovered by the brutal Captain (Wade Williams) overseeing the camp.
But Ruby’s rescued at the last minute by Dr. Cate Carter (Mandy Moore), a member of the underground League of Children, and hustled to a rendezvous with another League activist, Rob Meadows (Mark O’Brien). Before they can get her to a safe house, however, she joins up with three other youngsters-on-the-run who join happen to be at the same spot: Chubs (Skylan Brooks), a voluble green who provides comic relief while solving math puzzles; Zu (Miya Cech), a mute little girl who can control electricity; and Liam (Harris Dickinson), who led a breakout from a camp and, with his telekinetic powers might have been the perfect date for Carrie. (There even is a mention of a prom in a brief snatch of dialogue.) He’ll become Ruby’s romantic interest, of course.
The foursome have some adventures as they speed around in a van—they have to evade not only the League members, whom Liam mistrusts, but a nasty bounty hunter called Lady Jane (Gwendoline Christie), but eventually they achieve their goal of finding the camp-for-runaways established by a mysterious fellow known as Slip, for his legendary propensity to escape the authorities, but who turns out to be not only another orange, but Clancy Gray (Patrick Gibson), the son of the President (Bradley Whitford), who is used by the government in a campaign that falsely implies that children can be cured and encourages them to turn themselves in. He explains that in reality he’s planning a rebellion against the establishment.
Of course plot twists are inevitable. Clancy will show much interest in his fellow orange Ruby, setting up an incipient romantic triangle that irritates Liam. His motives, moreover, become suspect. And a major confrontation looms with government forces, eventually resulting in the return of that brutish Captain, the sudden arrival of a squadron of reds (pyromaniacs who represent the most dangerous color of all), and the reappearance of Cate, Rob and their League comrades. Acts of heroism and self-sacrifice come into play that set things up for an intended sequel (Bracken’s “Darkest Minds” books now number six volumes, after all).
But if you want to know what happens to Ruby and her friends, you’d best be prepared to sit down and read, because it’s fairly certain you’ll never see them on screen. Even if it were a better movie, the utterly formulaic quality of “The Darkest Minds” would probably doom any hope of a continuation. As it is, however, the picture is a lame example of a hackneyed genre, and even fans of the books will find it a drag. It’s nice to see another woman take over the director’s chair for a major live-action film, but unhappily Nelson (who helmed the last two “Kung Fu Panda” flicks) proves unequal to the task; the picture shambles along awkwardly, and the big action scenes are maladroitly staged (the scrappy cinematography is by Kramer Morgenthau, the choppy editing by Maryann Brandon and Dean Zimmerman). In her defense, no director could have salvaged the intimate scenes, afflicted with hilariously flat dialogue as they are, but certainly she could have improved the lines.
She and Hodges might also have made some effort to portray the larger world’s reaction to the crisis that has practically eliminated children from the population. The narrative is so confined that the only adults we see at all are the camp personnel, the League members, the bounty hunters, and—very briefly—Ruby’s parents and President Gray. Where is everybody? (An aside that everybody’s moved to the cities because of the economic collapse caused by the absence of children makes no sense whatever.) Maybe the intent was to encourage you to feel the youngsters’ isolation, but if so it doesn’t register: the picture just seems cramped and claustrophobic.
Stenberg doesn’t help matters with her droopy heroine act, and Brooks is stuck in irritating goofy-sidekick mode, while Gibson’s smiling smoothness is all too obvious a prelude to the shark that lies beneath. As for Dickinson, he showed he can really act as John Paul Getty III in the recent FX series “Trust,” but here he’s just a bland good-looking guy who plays second fiddle to another tiresome “you go, girl” heroine.
At one point Liam and Ruby share a happy moment at a dance in Clancy’s compound, talking about how it reminds them of Hogwarts. Referring to a YA franchise that actually worked was not a wise move; it merely serves to point up the utter mediocrity of the movie we’re watching now.