Jennifer Yuh Nelson, director of Kung-Fu Panda 2 and 3, brings us an ambitious dystopian film from the equally ambitious novel by Alexandra Bracken. With Wayward Pines' Chad Hodge providing screenwriting duties, The Darkest Minds attempts to thrill but instead comes across as a slightly more than passable effort.
In a world where most children have been wiped out by a disease, the genetic mutation that saved the remaining few has also caused them to have extraordinary powers. Rather than teach the children and their families how to survive with these abilities, the authoritarian government creates internment camps to house, isolate, and study them. But Ruby, portrayed by Amandla Stenberg (The Hunger Games), develops rare abilities that allow her to escape the camp with the help of Cate (Mandy Moore), who intends for her to join the League of Children, comprised of other survivors who are attempting to change the current government's policy.
The story itself is not bad in its concept, but the first hour is very rushed. Hodge tries to give the audience too much too fast, and the end result is too little of everything. It leaves the viewer interested, but not caring enough about the story or characters to feel really involved with them. It does not help that there are moments where it tries too hard to approach the themes of inclusion, exclusion, and the conflict between the two, and this is distracting throughout. Saving the film, though, is a turning point in the final half hour when everything slows down long enough that the audience can start to feel some empathy. Unfortunately, by this point much of the remainder of the tale is predictable.
Nelson's direction varies throughout the film, with some characters and scenes being spot-on while others vary from too subtle to over-acted to the point of cartoonish. She clearly knows her business, as evidenced by her outings in animation, but has not quite yet found her footing with live-action actors.
The two lead characters are finely portrayed, and with slightly better direction one would be more sympathetic towards them. Amandla Stenberg is developing into a fine young actress, fully capable of playing strong, yet vulnerable, female leads. Harris Dickinson (Trust) plays Liam, her friend who started as a leader but, in a notable change from the norm, is perfectly happy to be the second to Ruby's lead. Dickinson does well at this, not falling into the realm of seeming whiny or subservient. We see enough of Southpaw's Skylan Brooks as Chubs to know that, should a sequel be made, he will be worth watching.
Of all the technical aspects, the cinematography is the finest element. Veteran cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau brings a style that is panoramic in the long shots, intimate in the close shots, and vivid without being overwhelming in action scenes.
The Darkest Minds could have been much more than it is, but so many aspects of the production seem rushed that it only sits as a decent entry, mostly on the backs of the two leads, the cinematography, and the final act.