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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

The Darkest Minds movie review: seeking a prom date for the end of the world

The Darkest Minds red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
The YA dystopia is now just another fantasy setting for teen romance. We have normalized the apocalypse. Superpowered kids are being held in concentration camps, but OMG, will Ruby and Liam get together?!tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for stories about girls and women; big science-fiction fan
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
female director, male screenwriter, female protagonist
(learn more about this)

This is like Hogwarts,” marvels sweet Ruby (Amandla Stenberg: Rio 2, The Hunger Games), in delighted awe. “Does that make you Harry?” wonders cute Liam (Harris Dickinson) with a cheeky grin. The teens — and budding romantic couple? — are discussing the safe place where they have just arrived, having traversed a dystopian landscape across which they have been hunted by adults who want to kill them. Neither seems terribly traumatized by the adventure that has led them here, never mind the half decade previous during which they have been treated like animals or criminals. Ruby, whose story this is, has been imprisoned in a concentration camp for kids — shades of current events! except it doesn’t resonate at all — since she was eight years old and only recently escaped; she is particularly untouched by the horrors of her life, and remains naive and unhardened. And the end-of-the-world she finds herself in is actually quite pleasant: this safe space, a hideout for other fugitive kids, is like a funky summer camp where everyone is super chill and not suffering from PTSD at all.

Future pop-culture historians — should we survive to produce any — will surely look back at the thriving of YA dystopian nightmares in the early decades of the 21st century as some sort of collective subconscious response to the certainty that we are handing the next generation a world catastrophically worse than the one we inherited. And The Darkest Minds may be interpreted to represent the moment when we just stopped seeing that as a bad thing. The YA dystopia is now just another fantasy setting for teen romance. We have normalized the apocalypse. The most important question Minds asks, the entire focus of its concern, is this: OMG, will Ruby and Liam get together?

Scavenging in abandoned shopping malls: Cool thing about the apocalypse? Or coolest thing?

Scavenging in abandoned shopping malls: Cool thing about the apocalypse? Or coolest thing?

Assembled in a one-from-column-A, one-from-column-B way from far better stories, Minds — based on the novel by Alexandra Bracken and the live-action debut of Kung Fu Panda 2 and 3 director Jennifer Yuh Nelson — borrows from Children of Men and X-Men, among other fanciful properties, without any interest in actually examining the ideas it steals. Ninety-eight percent of children are dead in this near future; the remaining 2 percent have developed superpowers and are now kept in the aforementioned concentration camps, because the government is afraid of them and also wants to harness their powers. What does a society with no children look or feel like? We have no clue. (Are any new babies being born? If not, how is that being prevented? If so, are the babies superpowered, and do they get sent to camps? Who knows.) How does a society on the whole move on from the deep shock of losing all of its youngsters, and parents and other adults as individuals from the trauma they’ve suffered? We have no clue. The most interest Minds has in the afterscape of its disaster is a cheerful sequence in an abandoned shopping mall, one long since mostly picked over, yet where Ruby and Liam and their pals (Miya Cech and Skylan Brooks [Southpaw]) can still score plenty of cool stuff, including dust-free junk food.

Astonishingly, the superpower stuff has been given even less consideration. Ruby is an “Orange,” and can control people’s minds, à la a Jedi mind trick (“These aren’t the kids you’re looking for”), among other things. Liam is a “Blue”; he’s telekinetic. The superpowers, incredibly, fall into neatly delineated categories that can be color-coded by what shade the wielder’s eyes glow when those power activate… colors that conveniently align with human notions of what levels of danger those colors represent. Greens are the least dangerous; the Hufflepuffs of this new world, I guess? Reds are the most dangerous, their capabilities allegedly so horrifying that the movie keeps us in suspense as to what they are, though they are rather laughable once we see them. And couldn’t an Orange simply compel a Red not to deploy that power? Wouldn’t Oranges be the most powerful and the most dangerous?

Do you like me Y/N? *uses mind control to make him choose Y*

Do you like me Y/N? *uses mind control to make him choose Y*

Nothing makes much sense here. How can kids on the run in a world in which the only remaining kids are in prison rent a motel room? Why is the villain so cartoonish? Why does the movie neglect to give us enough information to be surprised by a moment that is supposed to be surprising? Why does the script share Ruby’s naive assumption about herself — that she is the only Orange to have fooled others into believing she is less powerful — which is not only patently unsupported by the story but blatantly unlikely? This is separate from the fact that everyone around her, adults and kids alike, would have to be complete idiots not to realize that such an attempt to fool is both the obvious route for Oranges to take and also impossible to maintain over the long term, when other powers fail to be demonstrated.

There’s barely a moment in The Darkest Minds — honestly, they’re not very dark at all — that rings true on any level. Not even the teen-romance one. These characters are not products of a cold world clinging to each other for safety and security. They are avatars from ours — poised, well-adjusted, confident — engaging in end-times cosplay. You know, for kids.


Click here for my ranking of this and 2018’s other theatrical releases.


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red light 2 stars

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The Darkest Minds (2018) | directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson
US/Can release: Aug 03 2018
UK/Ire release: Aug 10 2018

MPAA: rated PG-13 for violence including disturbing images, and thematic elements
BBFC: rated 12A (moderate threat, violence)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • Susan Larrings

    Yikes. A 2-star review seems quite generous after having read your review. This movie sounds like an eye-roller, a complete and utter waste of time. It angers me that studios keep making these crappy movies in hopes of finding *the next* Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games etc.. Divergent came close — but this seems like no effort was put into it at all.

  • Danielm80

    Joe Hill wrote a horror story about a horror fan who’s being pursued by a killer, but because he’s read so many stories in the genre, he knows exactly what to do.* I think, within a generation, stories will start to seem unrealistic unless every character knows all the genre conventions.

    *Bill Potts played a similar character on Doctor Who, and the Scream movies hit some of the same themes.

  • Nah, it’s just blah and inoffensive.

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