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The dullest dystopia – ‘The Darkest Minds’

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The past decade or so has seen a real glut of films based on young adult novels – particularly those of the dystopian sci-fi persuasion. It makes sense – when “The Hunger Games” blew up, every Hollywood studio out there wanted to get a piece of that bleakly futuristic pie.

Only there was a problem – not all of those properties made for great movies … or even good ones. Hence, we got a downward spiral of diminishing returns. There were a couple of franchises marked by increasingly inane installments and a handful of attempts at series that were abandoned following major flopping at the box office.

I can’t say for certain that we’ve reached the bottom of that spiral, but “The Darkest Minds” has to have brought us awfully close.

The film – adapted from the Alexandra Bracken novel of the same name – is as utterly forgettable as any cinematic YA sci-fi we’ve seen yet. The movie plays like a cobbled-together amalgam of every genre cliché conceivable, a thinly-plotted mish-mash of overfamiliar tropes so generic and bland that I literally struggled to remember the title. It is as predictable as it is boring, with little in the way of dramatic tension and even less in the way of interesting characters.

It’s the near future. A disease known as IAAN is sweeping the globe in a pandemic; the illness, which only infects the young, soon kills 98 percent of the world’s children. The ones who survive are changed in ways that make them a potential danger to themselves and others. No one is immune – not even Clancy Gray (Patrick Gibson, TV’s “The OA”), the son of President Gray (Bradley Whitford, “The Post”).

We see how dangerous when a young girl named Ruby manifests strange abilities – abilities that she accidentally uses to erase herself from the memories of her parents. She’s of course immediately rounded up and shipped off to one of the many camps that have been set up to quarantine and monitor these newly-powerful children.

You’ll be shocked there’s a measurement scale – this one uses colors to delineate. Green means simple intelligence enhancement and blue means more tangible abilities – telekinesis and the like. Orange and red are even more powerful, deemed too dangerous to live. Ruby is an orange, but she uses her powers to avoid detection.

Years later, Ruby (Amandla Stenberg, “Everything, Everything”) is in danger of being found out. With the help of a sympathetic doctor named Cate (Mandy Moore, TV’s “This is Us”), she escapes, only to find her way into the company of a group of like-minded young people looking for a supposed safe haven for the young. There’s Chubs (Skylan Brooks, TV’s “The Get Down”), a sarcastic green, and Zu (Miya Cech in her debut), a quiet blue who controls electricity. And then, there’s Liam (Harris Dickenson, TV’s “Trust”), a telekinetic blue who is immediately enamored of Ruby and how totally special she is.

Obviously, it isn’t as easy as all that. Not only are there government-funded bounty hunters out there rounding up rogue kids, but there are “liberation” groups whose motivations are questionable at best. And they have no idea whether this safe haven will be any better – if it even exists at all.

“The Darkest Minds” is as derivative as they come; it’s essentially a Mad Libs-style assemblage of YA science fiction’s greatest hits. You’ve got the near future setting and your global pandemic. You’ve got a very small, very special group of young people with exceptional abilities and a government determined to suppress and/or control them. There’s a simplistic and vague ranking system. One individual is even MORE special than the rest of the special people and it’s up to her to somehow save the day. She’s also the object of affection for a dude who’s less special, but also heroic and noble. And one small group, with her at the center, is all that stands between the bad guys and victory.

Seriously – just title the damned thing “Generic YA Dystopia” and cut out the middle man. At least that way, I might have been able to keep the title in my head while watching it.

Nothing about this movie is memorable. Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson’s only other feature directing credits are the “Kung Fu Panda” sequels; she should have held out for number four rather than sign on for this bore. I assume screenwriter Chad Hodge did a bad job, because the book HAD to be better than this.

The performances are equally meh. Stenberg and Dickenson are supposed to be our central love story, but they’re both so boring that it’s difficult to give a crap. The supporting players are a little better, though for the most part, it’s still pretty blah. Brooks and Gibson are OK … and they’re the high point among the youngsters. Moore has her standard stunned expression throughout, while Whitford plays every scene like he’s considering firing his agent.

“The Darkest Minds” is replacement-level cinema, a placeholder of a movie that will be largely forgotten by the time you get to your car. If it didn’t reek of opportunism, it would play as parody. It isn’t even bad enough to be fun.

[1 out of 5]

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