The Darkest Minds

[3 stars]

I have to admit, this movie was a good deal better than I expected given how badly it bombed at the box office. That doesn’t mean it’s great, but it was watchable…with occasional moments of yelling at the screen for dumb story choices. I’ll get back to the writing, but better first to compliment the cast who shouldn’t be overlooked for the weaknesses in the production.

Amandla Stenberg, who got her first big break as Rue in The Hunger Games, leads the cast of young actors through this latest hellish landscape of a dystopian future. She does so with a good deal of charisma and a nice emotional journey. Along with her companions, Harris Dickinson (Trust), Skylan Brooks (The Get Down), and Miya Cech, they battle their way to a potential future. And, of course, there’s the only slightly veiled, slightly creepy (and much toned down from book) Patrick Gibson (The OA) who joins them along the way.

The young cast hang onto control of the movie well, even when there are much more practiced adult actors sharing the stage with them. Among those, Mandy Moore (47 Meters Down), Gwendoline Christie (Top of the Lake: China Girl), and Wade Williams are the ones that pop. And then, of course, there is the amusing West Wing revenge of Bradley Whitford (The Post) who finally gets to sit in the President’s chair for this one.

Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson (Kung Fu Panda) managed her cast and the material she had well. But that is the problem, the material, which is solidly tween/teen in its maturity.

So, now back to the story itself.

Writer Chad Hodge (Wayward Pines) delivered a very un-adult script. Why things happen and how the world deals with them are lensed through the mind of a teen, with a teen’s understanding of how the world works. I’m not talking about perspective of the film, I’m talking about the writer and the amount of thought and research he put into their plot. If I’d known it was Hodge behind the keyboard going in I’d have been less surprised.

Dystopian stories are currently all the rage, but they are all riding the coattails of The Hunger Games. Hunger Games didn’t create YA dystopias, but it certainly set the expectation bar for how much money could be made by turning them into movies. The problem is, the studios have never understood why that movie took off and others (The Host, Divergent, Maze Runner, etc.) never really did.

Certainly there was a difference in the quality of the writing and, in some cases, the quality of the casting and/or directing. But really the answer is much simpler. Hunger Games, for all its futuristic framework, looks like this world and acts (mostly) like this world, and included adult thinking in its plot choices. It also took an important lesson from the Harry Potter series.

People who don’t read a great deal of science fiction or fantasy are not comfortable in thoroughly made-up worlds they are unfamiliar with. Hunger Games, like Potter, slowly acclimated a generation of readers into its world. Potter spent more than the first half of the first book in an English town and then only slowly opened the world around Hogwarts over the next 2 books. By the time they got there, most readers were completely unaware of the journey they’d taken and were willing to accept all amount of strangeness, because now it was familiar. Hunger Games managed a similar, if a bit more rapid, immersion.

Darkest Minds is a familiar world, but almost immediately has people with powers, which jumps the credibility line for a good deal of the viewing public. They’ll buy into it, but in fewer numbers and with a good deal of tongue-in-cheek nodding. It’s a shame, really, as almost all fiction these days is really genre based…Michael Crichton started that trend in spades decades back. But if the world is familiar enough to start, you can get an audience to go with you. This movie leaps too quickly into the weird and different to bring a large audience with it.

If you’re looking for distraction and some reasonable performances from up and coming young adults, it isn’t a bad afternoon. Certainly it is no more than a popcorn flick with grand intentions that are never achieved. Reaching for franchise had it stumbling. They should have gone for a standalone and hoped for the chance to take it further. The meat of a story was in there. The script let it down.

The Darkest Minds

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