Originality is overrated. A film like “The Darkest Minds,” in which children have superpowers and the government is out to get them, looks a heck of a lot like other superhero movies and YA adaptations, and it’s loaded with a ton of on-the-nose metaphors for youthful oppression.
But if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. These factors don’t keep “The Darkest Minds” from greatness; only the film’s middle-of-the-road presentation does that.
The YA genre, especially in its leaner, cinematic form, generally lives and dies on the power of its allegories. No matter how broad, or even ridiculous, the stories become, if they reflect genuine adolescent emotions and tangible, real-world issues, they can more or less get away with anything.
“The Hunger Games” was allowed its holographic dogs because its story of literal class warfare and propagandistic popular culture touched a nerve. “Divergent” dwindled in popularity because the metaphor of a world separated by caste systems became increasingly elaborate and harder to connect with.
In other words: keep it simple, stupid. “The Darkest Minds” keeps it simple, efficient, and generally effective. The film takes place in a near future where a mysterious virus has killed 90% of America’s children, leaving the remaining 10% with frightening powers. Some are superhumanly intelligent, others can move things with their minds, some can exude electricity, and others, like Ruby Daly (Amandla Stenberg, “Everything, Everything”), can control minds.
The government is absolutely terrified of this new generation of children, who have the power to take over the world if they wanted to, so they enact a system of oppressive propaganda as they round up the surviving youth into horrifying internment camps. There, they are separated by color — green clothes for smart kids, blue for telekinetics, etc. — and forced to work in sweatshops.
The imagery of children rounded up into grotesque camps by a government that hates and fears them is, to our collective shame, extremely topical. It’s an outrage, and the protagonists know it. After Ruby escapes she teams up with a group of superpowered kids — telekinetic Liam (Harris Dickinson, “Beach Rats”), intellectual Chubs (Skylan Brooks, “The Get Down”), and electric young Zu (Miya Cech, “American Horror Story”) — and goes on the run, in search of refuge from their oppression.
“The Darkest Minds” plays out with a crisp aesthetic, making it genuinely shocking when the film portrays acts of brutality. Scores of children are shot in the back as they try to escape American oppression, and sexual assault by the privileged becomes an important and disturbing plot point. The filmmaking might look uncomplicated, but the storytline is fierce, and a clarion call to arms, emitted at a frequency specifically targeted at young activists.
About halfway through the film, our heroes stumble across a decrepit shopping mall. The American economy has been obliterated by the absence of children, leaving behind abandoned communities and failed businesses. As our heroes go on a scrounging spree, eagerly trying on clothes and scooping up copies of books like “Watership Down,” we are reminded of the carefree lives we wish we could provide for our children. And we are equally reminded that if kids stopped buying all the junk we market to them, the whole capitalist system would probably collapse.
Kids, are you taking notes? Did you notice that aspects of the dystopian future from “The Darkest Minds” are already trending on Twitter? Are you aware of your power to influence the American economy? Are you reading “Watership Down?” They didn’t pick the book by accident.
Even if you don’t pick up on the parallels between “The Darkest Minds” and Richard Adams’ frequently disturbing saga of young rabbits in search of utopia in a horrifying, threatening world, you can surely recognize in the scene of Ruby reading the tome to Zu the importance of storytelling to convey real-world messages.
If “The Darkest Minds” was being judged only by its allegorical content, it might very well be a classic. But the efficiency with which director Jennifer Yuh (“Kung Fu Panda 3”) presents the material doesn’t leave room for much else. Action sequences are clear and conceptually sound, but presented without flare or gravitas. Romantic scenes rely on the natural chemistry between Sternberg and Dickinson, but rarely evoke deep emotional intimacy. The modest production values bely the scale of the story, in which nothing less than the future of humanity is at stake, but nothing looks grander than a sweeps week episode of a medium-budget CW series.
“The Darkest Minds” is smart. It has a lot to convey to its young audience, and the strong cast does everything in their power to illustrate those themes and to bring their characters to earnest, believable life. But it’s not quite thrilling enough to sneak its mission statements under anyone’s noses, so it plays a bit more like a manifesto than a sci-fi thriller. Still, it’s an intriguing manifesto.
If “The Darkest Minds” was a Twitter account it would probably have millions of followers, but as a movie it doesn’t quite have the same power.