Kids under the age of 18 are being persecuted by adults for their special powers in “The Darkest Minds ,” an adaptation of book one of Alexandra Bracken’s young adult trilogy that’s about five years and 15 movie dystopias too late to feel the least bit fresh or interesting.
It’s not for lack of trying. Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson (“Kung Fu Panda 2”) brings a heart-pounding intensity to the deeply disturbing story in her live-action debut. Children die, are beaten, burned alive, hunted and interned for their powers, which are helpfully color-coded by their glowing eyes and can essentially range from super smart to Jedi to fire-breather. But the story is derivative of so many other dystopias and kids with power sagas never even really gets going — a clear and infuriating set up for some future installment.
The film speeds through a jumble of exposition setting up a world in which most of the children die suddenly and the 2 percent who remain develop said special powers. The U.S. President (Bradley Whitford), afraid of tots and teens capable of mind control and telekinesis even though he’s also father to one, dispatches his military to round them up, execute the most dangerous, and force the rest into servitude in labor camps.
Ruby (Amandla Stenberg) is our entry into this world. She’s an “orange,” the second most dangerous color, but survives by mind-controlling the screeners into thinking she’s “green,” or the smart ones. The stereotypically sinister military guys (like Wade Williams’ “The Captain”) running the camp she’s in are suspicious and decide to stage a test to figure out what she really is, but a kindly nurse at the camp, Cate (Mandy Moore), helps her escape before that.
The first 30 or so minutes is actually fairly riveting with interesting action and tension as we all get acclimated to this strange world, but soon it becomes clear that this story has no intention of actually going anywhere, at least not in this movie.
Ruby hooks up with a little squad of runaways, the silent, electricity-wielding Zu (Miya Cech), the smart Chubs (Skylan Brooks) and the oh-so-obvious love interest Liam (Harris Dickinson) as they search for a paradise camp they’ve heard of that’s run by another escaped kid. There are obstacles along the way: Ruby is afraid to let her new friends know her true color, there’s a psycho bounty hunter on their tail in Lady Jane (Gwendoline Christie) and a lot of cagey little cliques of kids unwilling to help.
There’s also quite a lot of filler and half-baked story lines and underdeveloped ideas that leave this whole exercise feeling stilted and not quite finished. We don’t know very much about Ruby, but what we do know is the night she turned 10 and her parents gave her a Gudetama keychain, her eyes glowed orange and the next morning her mother didn’t remember who she was. And yet at 16, when she escapes the camp, all she wants to do is to go home. It’s a bizarre little diversion with no satisfying reveal — did she forget that her mom forgot her? Did she think things changed?
The film is full of little annoyances like that, which — and this is assuming the very best — may ultimately have more satisfying conclusions somewhere down the line that fans of the books get to know and the rest of us just get to guess at. And there are appealing things about this movie, like Stenberg, who does wonders with what she’s given to work with, and her chemistry with Dickinson. But as the whole dystopian YA genre looks for a way to evolve, this concept of set-up movies really needs to die. Derivative is excusable, a half story is not.