There was a brief moment where YA post-apocalyptic fiction was all the rage. Do we put the start of that at “The Hunger Games?” I’m sure someone out there could point to a precurser, but 2008 seems like as good a place as any for this trend to begin. The book was a smash hit as were its two sequels. The movie that came along four years later cemented the trend, was a blockbuster success, and basically assured that Jennifer Lawrence will never have to work again. What followed was generally of lesser quality, if basically the same kind of thing. They made movies of “The Maze Runner,” (eh) and “Divergent,” (yech). They tried to build franchises out of series like “The Fifth Wave,” (did anyone see this movie?) and “The Mortal Instruments” (I’m already bored and that’s just the title). They even revived an earlier generation of YA (before it had a hip moniker) and gave us films from “Ender’s Game” and “The Giver.” Though these films made some money to a greater or lesser degree, mostly the trend was a bust. “The Hunger Games” continued to break ground and records, but that’s because it, like “Harry Potter” before it, managed to grow and get deeper as it progressed. Try as they might, Hollywood was never able to recreate the success and the YA genre moved on to more traditional melodrama. Coming soon is “The Hate U Give,” an adaptation sure to ruffle feathers but that looks pretty good nonetheless. With all that, however, hope springs eternal in the boardrooms of the major studios, someone always certain they can grab a piece of that “Hunger Games” magic. This week I watched a film that came out earlier in the year. “The Darkest Minds” is definitely YA post-apocalypse, but, in addition, hopes to draft a little off of the “X-Men” franchise.
As so often happens, the end of the world as we know it starts with a plague. Starting with just a few before eventually spreading world-wide, children are struck with a bizarre affliction that either kills them or, in rare instances, gives them strange powers. Panicking, the U.S. government rounds up all surviving kids and puts them in camps, labeling them according to color. Blues are telekinetic, Greens are super-smart. Yellows can control electricity. All these colors are considered manageable, but Oranges are another thing. With the ability to control the minds around them, Oranges are considered too dangerous to let live. And Reds are another matter entirely.
Into this system is thrown little Ruby Daly, a scared young girl who realizes to her horror that she can make the people around her do what she wants. The first thing she does with her Orange power is to convince the attending doctor that she is, in fact, a Green. This works for several years, but eventually any lie is uncovered, and Ruby is forced to go on the run. With the help of several different sets of saviours, each with seemingly independent agendas, Ruby and her small ragtag band attempt to get to potentially mythical safe place, where their kind can live in peace.
I was pretty skeptical of this film, especially considering how problematic the run of the genre had gone so far. My son wanted to see it, so we went for it and, actually, it’s not half bad. It’s not as nuanced as “The Hunger Games,” but as far as an entertaining and engaging romp, I enjoyed it. Amandla Stenberg as Ruby is very good, and it’s no wonder considering her YA pedigree. She played Rue in the original “Hunger Games” and also starred with Ansel Elgort in last year’s “Everything, Everything.” Her next project is to star in the previously mentioned “Hate U Give.” She grounds this film and keeps her experience believable. Near the end, “Minds” takes some narrative leaps that I’m sure are more fleshed out in the novel, but even so, Stenberg manages to keep it on course. Less interesting is her love interest Liam, played by Harris Dickenson, but it’s not really his fault. His role is really to react and look stricken at whatever new predicament Ruby finds herself in. Aside from the acting, the writing is serviceable and the special effects are actually very good – often subtle when a lesser movie might have tried to create an unnecessary spectacle. I also appreciated that this film was willing to go a little dark (hence the title) instead of being a completely traditional hero story.
Unfortunately, this film never really found an audience. It was unable to even make a profit on a modest budget and, as such, I think it’s pretty unlikely we’re going to get the continuing adventures of Ruby and Liam, much my son’s disappointment. Luckily, he can just read the books. Grade: B
“The Darkest Minds” is rated PG-13 for some frightening scenes of violence involving children.
Chris Jenness is an art teacher and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.