THE DARKEST MINDS - Review - We Are Movie Geeks



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Well, we thought we were finally safe. “We” being movie audiences, in case you wondered. Just a few weeks into the new year saw the final installment of the film franchise culled from the MAZE RUNNER book series. With DIVERGENT and HUNGER concluded long ago, the scourge of movies based on young adult novels (or a series) set in a dystopian future seems to have run its course. Looks like we were wrong. With just over a month left in the Summer blockbuster season, the folks at Fox have scooped up the film rights to yet another set of YA novels (those things gobble up sections of chain bookstores like starving locusts). Here’s another group of plucky, photogenic teens (and pre-teens) ready to outsmart and fight the system run by the evil elders whose dark motives emanate from THE DARKEST MINDS.

The character voice-over narrator (if you recall ADAPTATION, you know we’re off to a shaky start) fills us in on the day that changed “everything” six years ago. Ten year-old Ruby sees a classmate convulse, crush a metal cup without touching it, and collapse, lifeless onto the school cafeteria floor. She was the first victim of the new disease known as “I.A.A.N.” (which stands for….eh, doesn’t matter), which proceeds to wipe out nearly all the children of the world. Ruby’s one of the lucky (or is she) survivors. But those who don’t perish develop “abilities’ and are rounded up by government thugs and sent to “rehabilitation” camps. This even happens to the son of President Gray (Bradley Whitford, perhaps hiding behind a big grey beard), Clancy (Patrick Gibson). When her parents suddenly don’t recognize her, Ruby is scooped up and taken to one of the camps. Six years later, Ruby (Amandla Stenberg) is taken to one of the camp’s doctors who tests her for abilities. The unusually helpful doc explains to her (and us) the different ways that I.A.A.N.affected kids via a big bright chart. The poster’s inverted pyramid (looking like the “love child” of the basic food group pyramid and Homeland Security’s threat level guide) shows four colors to code the danger levels. The bottom two, yellow and blue, can be controlled (involving telekinesis and electricity manipulation). The top two, orange and red, are most deadly. The doc is stunned to see that she’s an “orange” (who’d thunk it). Before he can give her a (literal) “killer” needle shot, she grabs his arm and unleashes her “power”, with her eyes emitting glowing orange circles (aha). Seems that Ruby’s “gift” is a combo of Obi-Wan’s old “Jedi mind trick (“These aren’t the droids…”) and Kal-El’s amnesia kiss from SUPERMAN II. Luckily Ruby is aided in her escape by a sympathetic doctor, Cate (Mandy Moore), who is is part of an underground order called “The Children’s League”. But after they leave the camp, Ruby learns of the league’s methods (she can also see somebody’s past via touch) and bolts. When she runs into a mute pre-teen electric charger named Zu (Miya Cech), Ruby follows her to a van occupied by two other teens on the run: snarky pessimistic “Chubs” (oops, I haven’t earned the right to call him that…an annoying ‘call-back” bit) Charles (Skylan Brooks) and hunky telekinetic Liam (Harris Dickinson). The foursome soon hit the road, evading “tracers”, bounty hunters including the “queen” Lady Jane (Gwendoline Christie), while trying to locate the hidden sanctuary/commune run by the famous “Slip Kid” (given that nickname after he escaped multiple captors). But is this paradise truly a safe shelter from those wishing to find and eliminate the survivors? Or perhaps, to quote Admiral Akbar (hey two Star Wars riffs), “It’s a trap!”

The cast of big screen newcomers and veterans struggle to overcome this meandering, cliche-ridden SF/ teen angst drek. Sternberg’s Ruby is a more pro-active character than her sheltered Maddy in last year’s turgid teen romance EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING, and despite the confines of the YA genre (she was in the first HUNGER GAMES) the young actress has real star power. Here’s hoping the her next role in the highly anticipated THE HATE U GIVE will better showcase her blossoming talents. Unfortunately there’s little chemistry on screen with Dickinson as Liam, who seems as though he’s being groomed as the next “heart-throb du jour”, a mix of the non-threatening Ansel Elgort and Nick Robinson (former Sternberg co-star) and the lanky physicality of Liam Hemsworth. Plus he looks somewhat silly as he uses his powers, echoing the stern concentration of Andrew Stevens in THE FURY and the lead in a high school stage production of “Dracula” (with a smidge of young Magneto). He’s a hunk and a bit of a “lunk”. And he doesn’t connect well with his verbal sparring partner, Brooks as Chubs (is that supposed to be “ha ha” funny ironic because he’s slender). He doesn’t appear to have much of a gift, aside from a “green thumb” (“A green Bell pepper is a red Bell pepper, you dips*#t!”) and a sour disposition, distrustful of everything, especially Ruby. Gibson is snarky and sinister as he channels James Spader in PRETTY IN PINK when trying to be menacing, a “frat boy” super-villain. Cech quickly assumes the adoring kid sister role to Ruby, unless she’s doing her battery charger skill (after whipping off a pair of bright yellow rubber dish washing gloves). As for the screen vets, why would Whitford follow up his role in two of last year’s most acclaimed films, GET OUT and THE POST, with one of this year’s…well? He’s smart to be absent after the first act, at least. Christie, last seen as Captain Phasma in last year’s EPISODE EIGHT, is here to don a leather jacket, snarl, and drive as though she’s trying out for the next FAST AND THE FURIOUS as tracer Lady Jane (what’s with the royal moniker). And Ms. Moore, who has a big following from her hit TV show “This is Us” squanders her time away from that in a confusing, underwritten character with unclear intentions. And to her credit, like Whitford, she too disappears for a good chunk (maybe an hour) of this nonsense.

This is most disastrous live-action feature directing debut for Jennifer Yuh Nelson, best known for helming the second and third KUNG FU PANDA movies. This flick just lurches from one limp action set piece to the next, losing any momentum with its insipid romantic sub plot, even screeching to halt in order to have a “trying on silly clothes” montage at a shuttered mall (still lotsa’ stuff there somehow) just after a big “make-over” scene (Zu has a pretty red prom dress, that just happens to fit Ruby), while some forgettable pop tunes assault the soundtrack. I shouldn’t be too hard on Nelson, since she’s burdened with a wretched , unfocused script from Chad Hodge (his feature debut, too) adapting the novel from Alexandra Bracken (wonder how close it is to her work). It does borrow generously from other YA best sellers, including a love triangle ripped right from the TWILIGHT series along with the fast escapes of the MAZE RUNNER, along with liberal doses of CARRIE, FIRESTARTER, and the X-MEN dynasty. This is most evident in the ridiculous showdown near the finale that has the feds (all with gravelly voices), many with full black stocking masks, attacking with high tech copters, sound-blasting bazookas and the dreaded “red” survivors who are on chain leashes like rabid werewolves with hoods over their heads resembling massive game falcons. And what do they do? Why they shoot fire out of their mouths, of course. Yes, teenage human flame throwers. But it’s not over then. For the last minutes we get a montage that includes a visual of one of Ruby’s powers that meshes the “Thanos snap” with the black “inky” aliens of ARRIVAL, as the producers set up an EMPIRE STRIKES BACK-style cliffhanger, promising further tales of these tortured teens. But the real suffering is that of movie audiences unfortunate to sit through this. Only THE DARKEST MINDS would subject us to a follow-up to the rock bottom of the YA novel-based movies.

0 Out of 5

Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.

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