Film Review: The Darkest Minds (USA, 2018) is not a dark enough YA Dystopia

6 years after The Hunger Games lead the charge of YA dystopia book to film adaptations, a new contender has appeared in an attempt to revive the genre. Adapted from the Alexandra Brooks’ series of the same name, The Darkest Minds combines young adult fiction dystopia with superpowers.

When a disease wipes out 90% of the population of those under the age of 18, and those that survive develop special abilities, the Government and adult population goes into panic. Fearful of what the enhanced children can do, they are forced into concentration camps under the guise of trying to find a cure. The children are colour coded based on their abilities and threat level, green have heightened intelligence, blue have telekinesis, yellow harness electricity, red can emit fire, and orange have psychic power – with the reds and oranges automatically flagged for extermination.

We meet Ruby Daly (Amandla Stenberg), an orange, who has hidden her abilities whilst in the camp. With assistance from the mysterious Doctor Cate (Mandy Moore) she escapes the camp and meets up with fellow rogue children Liam (Harris Dickinson) Chubbs (Skylan Brooks) and Zu (Miya Cech) searching for a safe haven. On the way they are pursued by the relentless bounty hunter Lady Jane (Gwendoline Christie) and members of The League of Children, an organisation trying to recruit children and turn them into soldiers to fight. Their only chance at freedom is finding the elusive “Slip Kid” at the safe haven for the psionic children called East River.

For director Jennifer Yuh Nelson (Kung Fu Panda 2 and 3) this is an ambitious live action affair. The film treads somewhere along the lines of Divergent or The Maze Runner meets X-Men First Class. The screenplay by Chad Hodge (Good Behaviour tv series, Wayward Pines) though doesn’t seem to capture the utter desperation and confusion of the remaining children’s plight. The Government is talked about like a shady overlord but besides their close call with the bounty hunter, real danger never looms large. The film speeds through its exposition so fast that you don’t have much time to absorb the necessary information. And being part of a trilogy of books, the ending is only somewhat satisfying since it needs to leave the possibility of follow up films.

Thankfully the performances of Stenberg and Dickinson manage to elevate the material albeit marginally. Their onscreen chemistry traverses the initial awkward teen meet cute, but by the end both are making hardline decisions that will have long term consequences. Though at times it does feel a little lopsided in that we’re shown more of Ruby and Liam and less of Chubs and Zu, despite being repeatedly told how they are “a family”. It would have been good to get a little more interaction and growth amongst all four, but a limited run time puts a dampener on it. Points for diversity casting though, with all of the kids featured coming from different backgrounds. Not to mention multiple strong female characters featured.

The film had every possibility at leaning into some of the darker themes of Government oppression, segregation and weaponising superpowered children but sadly opts for a safer, and ultimately more samey route with the focus kept on Ruby and Liam’s relationship and CGI action sequences. The former being interesting and the latter being exciting but both ultimately not peaking for full excitement inducement.

Younger audiences may enjoy this adaptation since it’s somewhat similar to the novel. However overall it’s nowhere near as politically engaging or charged as The Hunger Games or as CGI action heavy as we’d like. If only they had thrown the check-box list of YA tropes away and took a chance at going dark.

TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

The Darkest Minds is out in Australian cinemas form 16 August 2018 through 20th Century Fox