In 2015, the four-film “Hunger Games” series wrapped its billion-dollar run with one final film, the bulkily-titled “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part Two.” It may have been the lowest-grossing entry in the series, but it still managed to make over $280 million at the domestic box office, the kind of money that similar YA series would kill to make these days. For every “Twilight” or “Divergent” success, there’s a “5th Wave” (which made less than $35 million when it opened in 2016) or an “I Am Number Four” ($55 million) or an “Ender’s Game” ($61 million) — flops big enough to prove that the bubble of YA films with a sci-fi twist, a dystopian setting, and a powerful lead has very much burst.
Which is why it’s so disconcerting that “The Darkest Minds” is hitting theaters now. Based on Alexandra Bracken’s novel of the same name – the first in a series that includes three novels and four novellas, a heavy mythology to take on these days – director Jennifer Yuh Nelson’s live-action debut contains all the hallmarks of the kind of film that could have done brisk business five years ago, but now seems doomed to join other one-offs.
Despite the dated nature of the genre, the messaging of “The Darkest Minds” remains as valuable as ever – calls to be yourself, embrace your talents, take care of your friends, and battle injustice never go out of fashion – and, given the film’s first act setting of a government-run camp populated by children, there is a timely side to all of this, but it still feels as if it’s arrived five years too late.
20th Century Fox
It is, however, fitting that a film about the strength of kids includes standout turns from its young stars, including Amandla Stenberg (herself a “Hunger Games” alum) and “Beach Rats” breakout Harris Dickinson, along with Miya Cech and Skylan Brooks. The adult cast is mostly wasted, including Mandy Moore as a supposedly kind-hearted doctor who either has something to hide or just looks pained all the time, and “Game of Thrones” star Gwendoline Christie in a thankless role as a cruel bounty hunter (known as “tracers” in story slang). Stenberg continues to prove herself to be a leading lady on the rise, from her recent work in the charming drama “Everything, Everything” to her imminent role in this year’s anticipated “The Hate U Give.”
Yuh Nelson’s film opens in the early throes of what’s described by Ruby (Stenberg) via voiceover as “a war,” one that started when she was just a child (in the film a younger version of Ruby is played by Lidya Jewett, also a standout), with the sudden death of a classmate. Soon enough, voiceover Ruby tells us, half her class was dead, and then a full 90% of the kid population was gone, killed by a vicious, incurable virus. (Details on actual age cutoffs or the spread of the deaths to other countries are in short supply, so many of the “rules” of this new world remain unanswered.) The kids who survived were eventually shipped off to government-run camps, with clearly nefarious President Gray (Bradley Whitford) promising to find a cure for those kiddos and get them back home ASAP.
Six years later, Ruby and the rest of her kind are still in the camps. Her situation is particularly dire, because – in the one piece of “Darkest Minds” mythos that’s repeated ad nauseam – she’s one of the most dangerous kids out there, an “orange” on a scale that only goes up to red. Oranges and reds are typically killed the moment they’re checked into a camp, but Ruby’s powers have to do with mind control, so she’s slipped under the radar for years. That changes, care of a slapdash breakout that throws Ruby back into a very different world, one that’s devoid of both kids and answers.
20th Century Fox
As a newbie to life on the outside, Ruby is the perfect stand-in for some serious exposition dumping, and “The Darkest Minds” heaps it on as soon as she finds her way to a small group of fellow survivors, including Liam (Dickinson), Chubs (Brooks), and Zu (Cech). As is so often the case in films set in sudden dystopias, rumors persist of a paradise just out of reach, one run by fellow kid survivors and safe from the government’s grasp. Perhaps everything will be okay if they can just get there, but as is clear by the sheer amount of material Bracken has created in this world, that’s probably not the case. The journey, though, is often thrilling, and watching Ruby and her new friends bond is emotionally absorbing. You can’t help but care about them.
Yuh Nelson also finds the time to sprinkle in intriguing details that go much further towards explaining the current state of the world, from shots of overgrown soccer fields and sprawling parking lots filled with useless school buses to a quick glance at an outdated sign touting a steep price for a gallon of milk and a visit to another rogue group of kids. That’s all worth further exploration. Instead, “The Darkest Minds” goes the “big secret” route, the kind that hinges entirely on Ruby and has repercussions not just for her existence, but that of the entire world. It’s a familiar story.
That big secret is barely hinted at until the film’s second half, when it suddenly becomes the most important aspect of the entire story, a messy way to push forward into a conclusion that’s not just readymade for a sequel, but begs for one. The film zips through its final act at breakneck speed, doling out answers and riling up new conflicts with little care for how they impact a standalone story, just setting up for a franchise that might never come to fruition. Half a decade ago, it might have been a sure thing. These days, it’s no longer the obvious answer.
20th Century Fox will release the film in theaters on Friday, August 3.