Ever since the blowout success of the “Hunger Games” trilogy, Hollywood has been hungry for film adaptations of decently successful young adult dystopian novels. Some, such as the “Divergent” and “Maze Runner” series, received cinematic adaptations of their entire literary trilogies. But most are dead on arrival, barely recouping the production budget, tripping on rather than following in Katniss Everdeen’s lucrative footsteps. “The Darkest Minds” is another notch in Hollywood’s bedpost of female protagonists who juggle survival in a dystopian world with an average teenage love life.
Based on the first book in Alexandra Bracken’s “Darkest Minds” trilogy, “The Darkest Minds” takes place in a bleak future, where a mysterious disease has killed 98 percent of the world’s children and given superpowers to the rest. These children with newly minted powers — who are conveniently classified by the color their eyes turn when using said powers — are declared threats by the scary, evil government and locked away in internment camps.
The film follows 16-year-old Ruby Daly (Amandla Stenberg). She is classified as a powerful “Orange” who can perform Professor X-level mind manipulation. With the help of a friendly nurse (Mandy Moore), Ruby escapes her camp and soon finds herself in the company of fellow teenagers Liam (Harris Dickinson), Chubs (Skylan Brooks) and Zu (Miya Cech), all with their own varying degrees of superpowers. Together, the ragtag group of misfit kids searches for an elusive, fabled safe haven while escaping various adult antagonists.
“The Darkest Minds” follows all the clichéd tropes of its genre — a nefarious government, an abandoned building, a lack of parental guidance and a handsome, brooding love interest. Yet the film cannot seem to find a balance between “young adult” and “dystopia.” In one scene, the group narrowly escapes capture during a car chase, and in the next, the gang visits a deserted mall and goes shopping, riding around on tricycles in a montage set to a typical teenage indie song. One moment the teens encounter a ruthless bounty hunter, and the next they’re walking on train tracks in the woods à la “Stand By Me.”
The film also constantly jumps between focusing on the teens’ survival and the burgeoning relationship between Ruby and Liam. For every minute spent establishing Ruby’s dystopian world and her heartbreaking back story, there seems to be a minute of her and Liam having pseudo-heartfelt conversations meant to create romantic chemistry. This back-and-forth makes it hard for the film to find an emotional beat that runs deeper than its surface-level storyline, barely differentiating itself from its countless other dystopian counterparts.
By trying to give equal weight to the main storyline of Ruby, the gang’s search for a safe haven and the subplot of Ruby’s romance with Liam, the film paces itself in way that fails to develop all three aspects. The running theme of youth working together to overpower the corrupt world of adults is downplayed rather than explored. Liam and Ruby’s relationship is so rushed that the audience is left wondering when these teenagers had the time to have a friendship, let alone fall in love. Ruby runs into the group one afternoon, and by the next morning, she and Liam are already having romantic tension, teasing each other about going to prom.
Without proper pacing, the core characteristics of the film’s world are overlooked. There is an interesting concept of the children creating an inherent social stratification based on powerful and less powerful superpowers that is touched upon, but it’s disappointingly underutilized. Rather, the idea of groups of kids with various superpowers is used as a convenient, one-dimensional reason to move the plot. At one point, the very dangerous “Reds,” who can emanate fire, are introduced only as objectified weapons of the government. Chubs, the hyperintelligent “Green” of the runaway group, is solely there as the team’s puzzle-solver and overused comic relief.
For all the film doesn’t do in evolving its stale genre, it does provide an entertaining, perfunctory young adult dystopian story. There is no overextended love triangle, and the cast’s laudable diversity isn’t wedged in as if to show how progressive Hollywood can be. Notably, Ruby is the only Black woman to lead a young adult film franchise in the United States, and it’s Stenberg’s performance that adds emotional depth to scenes that would otherwise lack it. Yet in the face of it all, “The Darkest Minds” ends on a cliffhanger, potentially setting itself up for a franchise it may never see.