Super-Powered Teens Are on the Run in Dystopian Sci-Fi ‘The Darkest Minds’
Halfway through “The Darkest Minds,” fugitive Ruby (Amandla Stenberg) quotes “Watership Down” to a younger escapee “Zu” (Miya Cech). “All the world is against you. Be cunning and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed.” It’s a thematic moment, one to be paraphrased closer to the end.
With recent films like “Logan” and “The Hunger Games,” the future looks bleak for anyone under 18. But this trope has been a staple of young adult fiction since the X-Men debuted. With some exceptions, the future looks like a teenager’s worst nightmare: the adults are totally in charge and the kids are terribly misunderstood. “The Darkest Minds” is that nightmare.
In “The Darkest Minds” kids just can’t catch a break. Ninety-eight percent of them are killed off right at the start. The ones left have mysterious super powers and no adult is going to trust any kid more powerful than they are. The kids are shipped off to internment camps, their powers categorized by the color their eyes turn when their powers are used. There are blue and yellow but the worst are orange and red. They are the most rare and the most powerful. They are an instant death sentence to any child discovered with that color.
Ruby is an orange. Before the adult powers that be can do anything about it, Cate (Mandy Moore), a phony nurse with suspect motives, whisks Ruby out of the camp and off to freedom. This is when things become complex. Ruby can see the past. She touches someone and instantly becomes a witness to something that person has done, good or bad. Even better, she can control their minds and make them do whatever she wants. This is another solid reason for adults to want to bump her off.
Cate rescued Ruby for the Children’s League, a hidden collective of other escaped kids. There they are militarized and trained to fight the war against the adults in government who have made their existence illegal. But when she touches Cate’s ally Rob (Mark O’Brien), she sees enough to put the Children’s League in doubt.
Running away, she joins up with four other escaped youth on a quest to find the ultra-secret refuge run by the mysterious “Slip Kid.” The Children League continues to pursue her, as do jack-booted government thugs and bounty hunters (called tracers). The worst of the tracers is a Mad Max-inspired bully called Lady Jane (played with gleeful evil by Gwendoline Christie). Ruby comes up with reasons not to trust anyone.
Based on a book trilogy for young adults written by Alexandra Bracken, there is enough open-endedness to this particular film that a sequel can be reasonably expected. That would not be so bad. As directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson, her focus on character and relationships adds dimension and charm to Ruby, her allies Chub (Skylan Brooks) and Zu, as well as her conflicted love interest Liam (Harris Dickinson). The budding romance between Ruby and Liam with its conflicts, confessions and ultimate sacrifice is endearing.
Important for a film like this is the villain and without giving spoilers, the villain is very evil.
The cinematography by Kramer Morgenthau and the production design by Russell Barnes effectively transform a wide range of locations, from dark factories to lush green forests into powerful images. The sharp editing by action masters Maryann Brandon and Dean Zimmerman packs a punch.
“The Darkest Minds” is a fast-moving science fiction for young adults. Its modest budget fails to handicap the story. It tells a story that can be emotional and suspenseful without betraying it young adult roots as it tells the story of children surviving in a world that is against them and the only ones they can depend on is themselves.
“The Darkest Minds” opens Aug. 3 in theaters nationwide.