The Darkest Minds is the kind of movie that has a lot of noticeable plot holes that could have been saved and overlooked by proper worldbuilding, but the more one thinks about the film, the more messy the plot becomes. Adapted from the novel by Alexandra Bracken, director Jennifer Yuh Nelson brings stunning visuals and scenic shots to life in an otherwise less than thrilling YA adaptation.
Ruby (Amandla Stenberg) had a normal childhood until it wasn’t. It all began in a school cafeteria following the collapse of a fellow student. At ten years old, it’s hard to grasp exactly what’s going on, but there’s no time because over 90% of the world’s children (all under 18) begin dying without explanation. And just like that, Ruby wakes one day to find that her parents suddenly don’t remember her and so she and the remaining kids are taken to camps where they’re tested for powers. Different levels mean different things, with orange and red being the most lethal.
Ruby describes the aftermath as a “war” but we’re never privy to exactly what the aftermath is beyond kids being put in camps and kept under surveillance. Six years later, she’s rescued from the camp by Cate (Mandy Moore), a woman who works for a group of people trying to help the kids. Before Ruby puts her full trust in Cate, however, she runs away and joins three other escapees, Liam, Zu (who worryingly doesn’t speak a single word throughout the entire film), and Chubs (Harris Dickinson, Miya Cech, and Skylan Brooks). They set off to find the secret resistance group run by the president’s son (Patrick Gibson) in an attempt to find a new home and perhaps fight back against their mistreatment at the hands of the government.
I’m not sure how closely this adaptation is to the book, but if it’s anything like the film, then screenwriter Chad Hodge only had so much to work with. The Darkest Minds is half-formed with plenty of interesting ideas–ones that are too scattered to form a truly cohesive plot. It’s X-Men meets Harry Potter meets every dystopian YA adaptation in the last few years that haven’t quite managed to stick (the Divergent series comes to mind).
In a world where the majority of children have died and the ones left are living with an unexplained disease, it would have served the film’s plot better to have expanded on some of its ideas. Why are 98% of the kids dead from this disease? What is this disease, where does it come from, and why does it only target children? Is it alien, genetic, or government made? None of these questions are answered or even brought up, but the film expects us to go along with it anyway. There’s also a lack of conviction from the characters due to the lack of knowledge and connection to the outside world and a vagueness with regards to certain actions. What’s happening to the rest of society? How do parents feel about their children being taken?
Jennifer Yuh Nelson manages to bring some sentimentality with regards to Ruby and Liam’s blossoming relationship and it’s handled with the most care, making their final scene together the most impactful of the film. There’s a shot in an empty golden field, with the sun beaming behind them and an almost kiss; another scene where Liam is telling Ruby a story about how they would’ve met had their life been normal is shot in an intimate way that carries the utmost sincerity and actually makes you feel something, which is more than can be said about the rest of the movie. But however sweet these scenes may be, they’re largely misplaced within the movie’s framework. The group of friends are fine together, but because they don’t have any distinct moments of deep bonding beyond having to move from point A to point B, their characters fail to create a more integral relationship between each other as well as the audience.
The Darkest Minds has all the elements of a good film, but perhaps the weak link is the source material. In many ways, the plot is lacking and watching it unfold is like coming into something that’s already started. Ideas are introduced but never allowed to flourish to create something of its own. The ending also banks on the fact that there will be more films, but the setup is already lackluster and it’s hard to imagine any future sequels being able to play off of what’s already been presented any better. Like so many YA adaptations before it, including The Maze Runner and The Percy Jackson series, The Darkest Minds exists with a sense of detachment to the story it conveys and needs far more in terms of world building to be considered anything memorable.