A disease that wipes out 98% of the world’s children. Government roundups that send the survivors to concentration-camp-like rehabilitation facilities. Heavily armed “tracers” tasked with hunting down the few who manage to escape. Despite its PG-13 rating, “The Darkest Minds” would have been one of the darkest teen fantasy thrillers ever made — if not for all the other dark teen fantasy thrillers out there these days.
What once seemed daring (say, back when the original “Red Dawn” came out, pitting kids against threatening, heavily armed adults) has become the default template for young adult fiction and, by extension, for the woefully predictable film adaptations that hope to turn these supernatural-kids-misunderstood-by-the-world stories into the next hot franchise. Based on the first book in Alexandra Bracken’s young adult trilogy and directed by “Kung Fu Panda 2” helmer Jennifer Yuh Nelson, this relatively intense adolescent-focused action movie borrows nearly all its ingredients from other popular sci-fi franchises — from “X-Men” to “Stranger Things” — and doesn’t much seem to mind if kids recognize how derivative it is (at one point, the two romantic leads talk about how they feel like characters in a Harry Potter movie).
No doubt, the only thing more depressing than how many of these cookie-cutter novels find their way into print is the sheer number of rejected manuscripts for the same that have been piling up on editors’ desks in the years since J.K. Rowling coined the word “Muggles.” In this case, the movie’s not bad, but neither is it particularly original, casting an actress from another series — Amandla Stenberg of “The Hunger Games” — as Ruby Daly, a 16-year-old with abilities she doesn’t yet know how to control.
An exposition-heavy prologue establishes an outbreak of a highly contagious disease called IAAN, or Idiopathic Adolescent Acute Neurodegeneration, that targets only children. Ruby is eating lunch in the school cafeteria when a classmate starts shaking uncontrollably, then falls to the floor dead. According to news reports, the same thing swiftly happened to nearly all the minors on Earth — a super dark premise that would be truly nightmare-inducing if depicted — leaving only a small number of survivors, among them the president’s son, Clancy Gray (Patrick Gibson).
Are no more children born from this point forward? How do parents feel about losing their kids? Would they really permit authorities to separate and execute the survivors? (Bracken’s story clearly takes place in an alternate reality from the one in which citizens protest Trump’s immigrant child detention facilities.) And why do the survivors suddenly develop special abilities, ranging from telekinesis to mind control?
Only the last question seems to matter as the movie steamrolls forward, ignoring how such a cataclysm might affect the rest of the world’s population, and focusing instead on what happens to Ruby, who wakes up one morning to find that her parents no longer recognize her — another one of those ideas that, if played more menacingly, might scar young viewers. Taken captive by authorities and sent to a work camp, Ruby discovers that she can influence other people’s actions (à la Obi-Wan Kenobi’s “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for” trick). That makes her highly dangerous in the minds of the authorities, who have color-coded the surviving kids according to their abilities — she is Orange, superseded only by the lethal pyromaniacal Reds.
Lucky for Ruby, she has an ally in a seemingly concerned doctor named Cate (Mandy Moore), who breaks her out of jail and appears to have a mysterious agenda of her own. For understandable reasons, Ruby doesn’t trust Cate or any other adult, finding a way to sneak away with a trio of renegade teenagers, each of whom represents another color — and who collectively diversify the mix of races and genders featured: There’s Zu (Miya Cech), a young Asian-American Amber who can harness electricity, and who wears yellow kitchen gloves over her hands; smarty Chubs (Skylan Brooks) is a Green, an African-American super-brain who helps the crew make plans and solve puzzles; and the oldest is Liam (Harris Dickinson), a white Blue capable of moving objects with his mind — and of stirring Ruby’s affections with his dopey-cute attempts at courtship.
Nelson and screenwriter Chad Hodge want to orchestrate one of those semi-tragic teen love stories for the ages, investing a disproportionate amount of time in a romantic subplot that feels like excess baggage in what may as well be a war movie featuring kids. The confrontations are relatively small, although “The Darkest Minds” features a disturbing flashback in which armed guards gun down entire crowds of children and climaxes in a full-blown battle that somewhat startlingly claims the lives of dozens of kids and adults alike, while leaving the key characters alive to fight another day.
Keep in mind that the book on which “The Darkest Minds” was based kicks off a series, and Nelson’s film version has the feel of a promising TV pilot, setting up more than it resolves. The final image of the movie — a child’s hand held high in warring defiance of a villain we still don’t quite understand — isn’t so much a cliff-hanger as a “dot dot dot” for a sequel that will never get made, trailing off into the dustbin alongside such open-ended fantasy movies as “City of Ember,” “Ender’s Game,” and “The Golden Compass.”
Although “Divergent” and “The Maze Runner” are the more obvious points of comparison, this mixed-race, believe-in-yourself parable bears no small resemblance to Disney’s far bigger-budgeted “A Wrinkle in Time” from a few months back — and believe it or not, this is the better movie. Unlike so many somber-toned YA franchises, which go dark in hopes of snaring a wider audience, “The Darkest Minds” seems to be aimed squarely at teens. Without watering down the action, Nelson soft-pedals the most disturbing ideas in such a way that young audiences won’t be overwhelmed with gloom, instead inviting them to identify with the film’s empowered female heroine as she struggles to overcome her crippling lack of self-confidence and embrace what makes her special.