‘The Darkest Minds’: Amandla Stenberg stars in Jennifer Yuh Nelson’s tepid adapation of the young-adult novel
Adapted from Alexandra Bracken’s book, the movie begins with a flurry of dystopia, as a pandemic kills a major percentage of the U.S.’s children, leaving those that survive with strange abilities. Color-coded to identify their level of power (in the same way mutants are rated in the “X-Men” universe), the kids are rounded up and held in camps, ostensibly to seek a cure, but clearly rooted more in fear than compassion.
At the center of that depressing world is 16-year-old Ruby (Stenberg), who, registering at the “orange” end of the spectrum, has the power to perform the equivalent of Jedi mind tricks that force people to obey her, among other gifts. After six years in a camp, she’s liberated, joining up with a trio of other teens, on what amounts to a cross-country trek to find a haven from the forces seeking to capture and control them.
The bonds among the kids represent the movie’s primary strength and central core, since the adults — including Mandy Moore, Bradley Whitford (who plays the president) and “Game of Thrones'” Gwendoline Christie — don’t contribute much more than Charlie Brown’s parents.
Fortunately, Stenberg is genuinely appealing, mixing vulnerability with flashes of her powers. She’s afraid to touch people, like the X-Men’s Rogue; and prone to flashes of telekinetic anger, a bit like the teens in “The Fury.” There’s also a tenderness to her relationship with Liam (Harris Dickinson), reminding us that superpowers have a way of exacerbating the awkwardness associated with young love.
As those comparisons suggest (and a few more, such as the fear-your-children theme in the ’60s classic “Village of the Damned”), one of the problems with the film — produced by Shawn Levy (“Stranger Things”), written by Chad Hodge, and marking the live-action debut for director Jennifer Yuh Nelson (the “Kung Fu Panda” sequels) — is that virtually every aspect of it feels cribbed from something else. And that doesn’t factor in one of its best flourishes — using “Watership Down” as a means of providing commentary about the children’s search for sanctuary.
Moreover, it’s fairly transparent early on, given the variety of constituencies in play, that there won’t be time to resolve everything that’s being set up, which only magnifies the sense that the movie isn’t compelling enough to justify the expectations being heaped on it.
There is, inevitably, a metaphorical quality to science fiction, from youthful alienation to the emphasis here on colors, which includes labeling and segregating the teens based on their power levels, adding one more impediment to Ruby and Liam’s connection.
For all the talk about colors, though, and the palette that’s represented within the movie’s ambitions, “The Darkest Minds” ultimately proves pretty drab and gray.
“The Darkest Minds” premieres Aug. 3 in the U.S. It’s rated PG-13.