I might not be saying something new when I say that The Darkest Minds offers nothing new. But when it’s right it’s right. It already can make audiences’s eyes roll at its derivative use of news footage. A mysterious disease killed most children, and too bad it’s not all of them. One of the survivors, however, is young Ruby Daly (Amandla Stenberg).
Ruby, like most surviving underage persons, finds herself in a camp with other children who the adults classify by color. Kids who are smart are green, the ones who can move objects with their minds are blues. A fellow critic wondered why that ability doesn’t have a more dangerous color. But in its defense, the other color classes have more dangerous abilities.
Those colors include yellow, which stands for electric manipulation and red, a classification that’s under spoiler territory. The highest color is orange. Had some doctor known that Ruby is an orange, he would have had to kill her on sight. But that classification came in handy, since that rare group can manipulate minds. And she convinced him that she was a green instead.
A dystopia where adults throw kids in camps sound utterly familiar. It eventually shows those hellish places, which puts children to work camps and subject them to verbal abuse. It even goes as far as the occasional sonic cannon that renders them unconscious. But the film somehow makes those atrocities look light in comparison to movies that have shown similar rotten places.
Although one scene shows a mix of being grim and informative. During her first moments in camp, an orange tries to run and use his powers. This of course, ends in his death. She learns her first vital lesson, to lay low and hide her powers. But the plot trajectory gets her to be around people who want to use her powers.
The Darkest Minds also tries to play into all kinds of paranoia. Although mostly the ones children have against adults and the government. Another doctor (Mandy Moore) helps Ruby escape the camp. The latter’s journey will involve her falling into and out of the hands of that doctor’s League. Eventually she learns that she can’t trust both adults and her fellow teenagers.
It doesn’t help that the performances are either too placid or the bad kind of campy. Stenberg appears in three movies this year that have potential. But it’s unlucky that I watched the one where she displays only one emotion – perpetual fear. There are valid defenses for the decisions she makes here but it doesn’t come out well in the final cut.
In her defense, writers Alexandra Bracken and Chad Hodge don’t give her character development. Characters like Ruby should look like they’re learning things along the way. There’s her first day in camp. There’s also that scene between her and another kid, Chubs, (Skylan Brooks). Both figure out how to find a camp that kids actually run. Those moments are too few and far between.
This, of course, comes from a YA book series that Bracken wrote. A film that’s obviously a first installment in a series comes with moments of perfunctory world building. This makes the stakes too dangerously low. What makes this fail is that it weans its audience. It should have just thrust us into a dystopia that film of that genre would.