Kids considered different are being separated from their parents and put in camps. No, this isn’t the U.S.-Mexico border in 2018. Rather, this is The Darkest Minds─a movie which is a little bit X-Men, a little bit Hunger Games, a little bit Divergent and a little too long to be a lot too short on originality.
It’s based on Alexandra Bracken’s book of the same name. It’s about a world, or at least Virginia, where 98 percent of children under the age of 18 die of some mysterious disease called IAAN, and the ones who survive are “blessed” ─or, in this case, cursed─with color-coded superpowers that make the government fear them, and therefore, lock them up. Even the president of the United States (Bradley Whitford, looking much grayer than his West Wing days when his character Josh served a president) isn’t immune. His son, Clancy (Patrick Gibson), also is affected.
With a nod to real-life Homeland Security, and using the exact same colors as that agency, the hues describe the progressive levels of fear. Greens are highly intelligent, but apparently otherwise harmless; blues have telekinetic powers; yellows can harness the finer points of electricity, while mind-controlling oranges and fire-breathing reds have powers that are supposed to get them shot on sight. Blues and yellows seem formidable enough, but are given a pass for reasons unexplained.
The focal point of the movie is Ruby (Amandla Stenberg, who plays the girl at age 16), an orange-powered teen with a red-sounding name. She has one feel-good scene with her parents at her 10th birthday (where Ruby was played by Lidya Jewett) before life as she knows it goes off the tracks. Young Ruby, unaware of how to harness her powers, inadvertently erases herself from her parents’ minds─whoopsie!─so they imprison this newfound stranger in the garage, and the chronically ill-humored authorities haul her off to a military camp where surviving kids are subjected to labor. When we see Ruby again, six years have passed, during which she has survived by convincing her captors she’s merely a green.
But when her true color comes out, a friendly doctor named Cate (Mandy Moore), secretly a part of a group called the Children’s League, helps Ruby escape just before she is to be killed, and the adventure begins. Ruby meets up with three other kids trying to cope with the new world order─blue-powered Liam (Harris Dickinson), green-powered Chubs (Skylan Brooks), and yellow-powered Zu (Miya Cech), who goes through the movie without saying a word and while wearing yellow rubber gloves so that she doesn’t electrocute friends by accident.
From there, the movie skips along predictably, without dwelling much on story development. The characters are more certain of foes than friends, even as they dodge bounty hunters and try to reach a rebel outpost where kids dance somewhat spasmodically─and this supposedly is a little piece of utopia in a dystopian world. Once they reach EDO, the rebel outpost, they are surprised to find Clancy, the only other known orange-powered human, in charge. That sets up a love triangle and some Captain Obvious-level plot twists that anybody familiar with the YA dystopia genre will see coming a mile away.
The whole thing has the feel of a movie you’ve seen before, but with─you guessed it─open-ended questions that only a sequel can answer. What it doesn’t have is the feel of a movie that Dove audiences will flock to see. Language is a bit of a concern; though Chubs has a valiant moment near the end of the film, he also has a mouth that his mother might want to wash out with soap a time or five. There’s plenty of violence, couched in a fight for survival, which leads to, among other things, some disturbing images of fire-breathing kids incinerating other kids.
There isn’t a faith-based component to this flick, and there’s precious little effort at fleshing out a coherent message beyond “Most adults can’t be trusted.” While it’s not an inherently bad film, there just isn’t enough in it to recommend Dove approval.
The Dove Take
You’ll find that most of the other movies in this tried-and-true-but-getting-tired YA dystopian genre didn’t receive Dove approval, either, and for many of the same reasons outlined in this review. Language and violence will be the culprits that undermine this one for Dove audiences, though Amandla Stenberg wrings a strong performance out of shopworn material. To borrow from Proverbs 29:25, there’s plenty of “The fear of man lays a snare” in this movie, but nothing here to suggest the second part of that verse, “but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.” Nothing is safe here, especially the assumption that there will be enough new ideas to compel a sequel.