If you sat down to watch The Darkest Minds without knowing it was based on a book, that information would become abundantly clear about 10 minutes into the film. Almost every scene, especially early on, feels slightly detached from the last, as if some cohesive thread was cut to squeeze a 500-page book into a 100-minute movie—which, if we’re being honest, is almost certainly the case. The result is an interesting, beautiful-looking movie that gets increasingly frustrating as plot lines are left in the dust, relationships are forced together, and surprises are clearly telegraphed.
The Darkest Minds is based on a book by Alexandra Bracken, adapted by Chad Hodge, and directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson. It tells the story of a future where a mysterious disease has wiped out most of the children on Earth. The children who survived did so because of latent, almost mutant powers; as a result, frightened adults hunt them down for capture. Amandla Stenberg (The Hunger Games) plays the main character, Ruby, secretly one of the most powerful kids in the world. Her struggle to hide that power, get home to her parents, and eventually rise up with her fellow kids is the main narrative, with a little romance and deceit scattered along the way.
This being the first in a trilogy of stories, obviously not everything is going to be explained. Ruby isn’t going to discover who she is and what’s going on, and manage to save the world, in 100 minutes. Even so, the film tries to fit in as much story as possible, so many, many things get left behind. For example, the impact of the child genocide never really lands. The trauma of survivors being put in what are basically internment camps feels almost fleeting. Why exactly the adults are doing this is left mostly for viewers to read between the lines. All of this means that by the time Ruby gets out of her camp, much of the fascinating backstory has been forgotten. Then, adding insult to injury, new characters played by Mandy Moore and Gwendoline Christie are introduced and quickly removed from the equation, surely with more story to tell in subsequent films.
All of that may have been okay if the film dug deep into character and relationships, but it doesn’t really. It’s so caught up in plot we don’t connect with most of the characters on screen. So when Ruby meets another group of runaway kids, lead by the heroic Liam (Harris Dickinson), their almost instant attraction and flirtation feels somehow alien. It’s supposed to—this is a world in dire need of love—but the juxtaposition with this freight train of a story feels awkward and more than a little forced. This is a problem, because basically the remainder of the movie is driven by that romance, including an ending meant to land with an emotional wallop, but instead ends up as a major head-scratcher.
Luckily, while the story of the movie is muddled throughout, its visuals are not. Yuh Nelson and cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau populate the film with beautiful, lush colors and interesting shot compositions. Also, the casting is solid for the most part, and Stenberg in particular seems like a breakout. But striking visuals and an interesting lead performance are all for naught when the plot feels like a thin slice of Swiss cheese.
Drawing its influences from comic books, literature, politics, and so much more, The Darkest Minds is a movie with a lot of promise. But that promise ultimately goes unfulfilled, and the end result falls victim to the difficult task of literary adaptation. Maybe if more films in the series are made, this one will look better as a part of a whole. But as a standalone, it’s a disappointment.
The Darkest Minds opens Friday.