Books being adapted into films are always a dicey proposition. There’s a complicated balance to be struck between fidelity to the characters and stories of a beloved novel, and the need for more than a little narrative trimming when making the conversion from hundreds of pages to a brisk 105 minutes. This is compounded by the fact the The Darkest Minds. based on the novel by Alexandra Bracken and directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson, is making its entrance in the aftermath of an intensely crowded series of dystopian young adult adaptations. Coming on the heels of The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, and countless others, it takes an exceptional entry to stand out.
The Darkest Minds is about a world where children are both humanity’s greatest threat and greatest weakness. A mysterious plague has killed off the majority of children, and those that remain have terrible, unexplained powers. For reasons that are never quite clear, the government and society deem that the best way to deal with them is to put them into camps, where their lives are ruled with dictatorial ruthlessness. Each child’s powers are given a color-based ranking — the lowest, Greens, are simply savants, able to perform complex calculations with no trouble. Toward the middle are Blues, who are powerful telekinetics. The highest and most dangerous are Oranges, who can read and control minds. Ruby Daly (Amandla Stenberg) is one such Orange, and with the help of a kindly — but still somewhat suspicious doctor (Mandy Moore) — she is freed from the horrific camp she’s been in for seven years. Through a series of misadventures, she ends up with a traveling group of other kids — Liam (Harris Dickinson), a predictably handsome and sweet Blue, Zu (Miya Cech), who can control electricity, and Chubs (Skylan Brooks), a Green. They spend the film learning about each other and the dangers of the world around them, dodging bounty hunters and Moore’s cohorts, all while seeking a secret kids have known only as East River, which is run by a faceless benefactor called The Slip Kid.
The novel is a strong, intelligent, and thought-provoking one that I thoroughly enjoyed and quickly consumed the two subsequent entries. It’s fun, often quite dark, but still lighthearted enough to keep things engaging and briskly paced. The characters are well-written and mercifully don’t spend their lives bickering and making bad decisions. Most crucially, it doesn’t travel down the lazy road of forcing its female protagonist into a love triangle. And, interestingly, the film picked a solid crew of actors to portray those characters. Stenberg is good as Ruby, mixing vulnerability with determination and strength in just the right amounts. Her companions all do fair-to-good jobs in their respective parts as well. Mandy Moore is sufficiently gentle and trustworthy as Kate, the benevolent doctor. The films greatest crime — as far as casting is concerned — is Gwendoline Christie as Lady Jane, a legendary bounty hunter. She’s in full Phasma mode here — a fierce, imposing figure who’s onscreen for maybe five incredibly underwhelming minutes.
So we have a great novel and decent actors giving solid portrayals. There’s just one problem, and I apologize for taking so long to get here: The Darkest Minds isn’t a good movie. In fact, it’s really boring. It somehow manages to be a very faithful adaptation of the source material… and a terrible movie. I’ve had a great deal of difficulty reconciling these facts. The actors feel right as the characters, and there are no great liberties taken with the story. Yet so much of the film feels adrift and lifeless, meandering lazily from plot point to plot point, never really gathering any momentum. The dialogue isn’t terrible, but it never feels quite in sync with the story or even the actors. I spent the first third of the movie excited because I felt like it was really doing its characters justice, the second third feeling apprehensive over how stultifying it felt, and the final third flat-out bored.
Somehow, The Darkest Minds takes a relatively original concept (no, it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it does enough to distinguish itself from its contemporaries) and turns it into a rote, listless slog. It’s rather unfortunate really, especially given that Stenberg is such a promising young actor — ironically, before the film, there was the trailer for her next film adaptation, The Hate U Give, and it just made me wish I were watching that instead.
There’s an armada of generic YA dystopian works out there, and Bracken’s novel stands out among them as one of the better entries. It’s a shame that the film does the opposite, drifting aimlessly into the back of the pack, gray and indistinguishable and ultimately just another dreary bit of teen science fiction that will be deservedly forgotten.