“THE DARKEST MINDS” — 2 stars — Amandla Stenberg, Bradley Whitford, Mandy Moore, Skylan Brooks, Harris Dickinson, Miya Cech; PG-13 (mild sexual content, profanity and violence); in general release; running time: 105 minutes
“The Darkest Minds” is a harmless piece of cinematic deja vu.
Based on Alexandra Bracken's young adult novel, “The Darkest Minds” follows the heroic adventures of a gifted teenage girl as she faces down a treacherous postapocalyptic world.
Sound familiar yet?
The film is set in the not-too-distant future, after a mysterious disease wipes out 90 percent of the world’s children. The survivors display strange powers and are taken from their families and grouped into categories based on the particular power they have.
Ruby (Amandla Stenberg) is an orange, which means she can control minds. She’s especially rare, and when her camp targets her for extermination, a military doctor named Cate (Mandy Moore) rescues her and tries to take her to a resistance movement called the Children’s League.
Instead, Ruby teams up with a group of fugitive kids who, funny enough, each represent a different color on the superpower spectrum. Zu (Miya Cech) is a yellow, which means she can control electricity. Chubs (Skylan Brooks) is a green, which means he’s super smart (greens are considered harmless, even by the evil military guys).
Then there’s Liam (Harris Dickinson). Liam is a blue, which means he can levitate objects and unscrew lug nuts with his mind when the van gets a flat tire. He’s also tall, dark and handsome, which means he will shortly become Ruby’s love interest.
Liam and his crew distrust the Children’s League, and obviously they can’t go back to the government camps, which are ruled by a cartoon bad guy named Captain McManus (Wade Williams). Their only hope is a rumored third party, led by a mysterious teen named the Slip Kid (because he frequently slips out of the hands of the bad guys).
So, let’s recap. We’ve got a postapocalyptic future (B!). We’ve got a population grouped into arbitrary categories (I!). We’ve got a dashing and deferential male love interest (N!). We’ve got a strong but vulnerable teenage female lead who is uniquely gifted (G!). And we’ve got an ending tailormade to anticipate a sequel.
“The Darkest Minds” has its moments, but for the most part, it’s like watching a dubbed VHS copy of a dubbed VHS copy. It’s the latest aspiring young adult franchise to follow in the footsteps of “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent,” though it would be a surprise if “Darkest Minds” makes it anywhere near that far. In fact, at one point, “Darkest Minds” even references the granddaddy of young adult franchises: "Harry Potter."
To bolster the youthful cast, “Darkest Minds” also features Bradley Whitford as a bearded U.S. president in trendy glasses, and Gwendoline Christie has a small supporting role as a bounty hunter named Lady Jane who rides around in a gold Dodge Charger. But like most all young adult films, the narrative weight is on young shoulders, and in this case, it’s too much of a burden.
There’s something to be said about a tried-and-true formula, and some audiences may dismiss “Darkest Minds’” similarities as nothing more than the genre tropes that make it so appealing to its target audience. For some, that might be enough. But director Jennifer Yuh Nelson’s film has a tendency to rush its narrative, bounding forward in such a way that at times you feel what should have been a three-hour film has been scaled back to 105 minutes. And as a result, all the emotional gravitas and hints at social commentary just feel half-baked.
Maybe fans of the book will feel rewarded to see its story on the big screen. For the rest of us, “The Darkest Minds” will just feel like a fleeting memory of a story we've heard many times before.
Content advisory: “The Darkest Minds” is rated PG-13 and contains just enough profanity and violence to make parents at least a little cautious about sending their younger kids. It also includes one sexually aggressive scene in which a man tries to force himself on the heroine, but the scene is not explicit.