Ever since the runaway successes of such YA (young adult) franchises like HARRY POTTER, the TWILIGHT saga and THE HUNGER GAMES graced our movie screens, Hollywood’s major studios have been scrambling to come up with the next big money-maker in this genre. The DIVERGENT series took in US$765 million off a combined production budget of US$305 million but the third film in the series only grossed about half of what the second film did. The MAZE RUNNER series did much better – almost a US$1 billion off a combined production budget of US$157 million – but even the third film in that series failed to do as well as either of its two predecessors. Now we have a new YA series called THE DARKEST MINDS, which is based on Alexandra Bracken’s 2012 novel of the same name. If this film doesn’t kill off YA movies for good, nothing will. Yes, it’s that lousy. Not bad, just lousy.
In the film, a mystery disease has affected the children of the United States, killing 90 percent of them under the age of 18. The ones who have survived seem to have gained paranormal powers ranging from high intelligence to mind control. A group of kids can even breathe fire now. Needless to say, the US government is scared and President Gray (Bradley Whitford, GET OUT; TV’s WEST WING), whose own son is also a survivor, orders the kids be sent to what are essentially concentration camps. The kids who score high on the colour-coded psionic scale (i.e., the fire-breathing and mind-controlling ones) are immediately sent to their deaths while the brainiacs and levitators are given menial tasks to keep them scared and submissive.
Ten-year-old Ruby Daly is one such child who has scored at the top of the scale but she uses her power to trick the camp’s doctor into scoring her lower down. Fast forward six years and the government is onto Ruby (now played by Amandla Stenberg, THE HUNGER GAMES). With the help of a sympathetic doctor named Cate Begby (Mandy Moore, TV’s THIS IS US), Ruby escapes the camp and ultimately meets up with three other runaways, led by the dashing Liam Stewart (Harris Dickinson, BEACH RATS). The four kids embark on a road trip to find the safe haven for psionic children called East River, eluding a bounty hunter named Lady Jane (Gwendoline Christie, TV’s GOT) and a paramilitary rebel group of telekinetic kids organised by Dr. Begby and her boyfriend, Rob Meadows (Mark O’Brien, ARRIVAL).
Right from the point where the kids are incarcerated, you don’t have to be a genius to figure out where this story is going. It goes there with very few surprises and, what’s worse, it takes forever to get there. One hour into the movie (I know because I looked at my watch), nothing big has happened. If this were a two-hour movie, it wouldn’t have been too much of a problem but the film’s running time is only 104 minutes including post-film credits. That’s doesn’t leave a lot of time for the big showdown, which you know is going to happen, and for some believable character development. Instead we’re treated to a good ten-minute stretch where the kids go to an abandoned shopping mall and ride around on tricycles before taking off with baskets filled with junk food and new clothes.
The film’s pacing is not the only thing that’s messed up. The whole storyline is rather trite. Aren’t these kids basically junior X-Men, the only difference being that there are only five types of “mutations” here? That’s not very creative. And here’s a glaring plot hole for you: Why didn’t the government use these genius kids to come up with a “cure” for this disease or at least a better solution than putting them in camps? Here’s another one for you: Why has it only happened to American children… or has it?
As far as the performances go, Stenberg is fine but this role seems to be far below what she’s capable of. My heart goes out to Christie though, who is trying to find something new as GOT is coming to end. Her performance here will not help her career.
A sequel has been optioned but the film is bombing at the box office. It’s highly doubtful that it will be greenlit at this point, and that’s a good thing.
Don’t waste your time and money on this film. It’s a clunker.
Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live in RTHK Radio 4’s studio on Thursday, August 23rd at 8:30 am HK time!
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