By: Felix Felicis (Two Beers) –
Here I go again on my own, going down the only road I’ve ever known! Wait. Sorry. That’s a kickass song by Whitesnake… Which ALSO happens to be the mental background music in my head whenever I get assigned a new YA flick (okay, who are we kidding, we all know I jump on these YA-adaptation-swords semi-willingly DON’T JUDGE ME IT’S A COMPLICATED RELATIONSHIP OKAY?!). I saw The Darkest Minds coming down the pike and, having recovered from my last YA-ish adaptation (the neuron-searing pop culture orgy of craptacular CGI shoved into a blender and set to ‘Puree’ that was Ready Player One), I bravely raised my hand to catch this latest page-to-screen franchise-flick hopeful. I won’t lie, the trailer looks like a mashup of what happens when Divergent and X-Men have a baby. It’s… less than inspiring. Add to that the fact that I went out and bought the book (written by Alexandra Bracken) to read it first so I could watch Darkest Minds possibly hoist itself by it’s own silverscreen petard and (after reading the mostly clunky, semi-tired narrative), and you had a less-than-enthused critic queuing up for opening weekend. But soft! What hope through yonder window breaks!
Darkest Minds begins with a narrative voice over, usually a tired and overused theatrical vehicle which, 99% of the time, means you’re already using a defibrillator to retain my interest (except in Dredd – I WILL DIE ON THAT SWORD THAT MOVIE WAS AMAZING AND NEEDS A SEQUEL OKAY THANKS GOOD TALK EVERYBODY… Call me, Karl Urban) but I wasn’t mad at this one. From there we learn that what may be the worlds clunkiest-named disease (IAAN- let’s be honest it’s no “WCKD is good” a la Maze Runner) has rendered (what is in the book slightly more explained) the next generation of children either dead or super-powered into five different classes (Green-Uber Nerd Smart, Blue-Telekinesis, Yellow-Electricity, Red-Fire, and Orange-Mind Control).
Defying the odds, the world has rallied around these children and provided loving and secure training facilities to educate these surviving children in how to use their powers for good, with the ultimate goal of re-integration into society. Lulz. Just kidding. The world fucking freaks out, the President of the United States is a power-hungry, deceitful despot being controlled(?) from behind-the-scenes (HAHAHA THAT COULD NEVER HAPPEN, RIGHT? … RIGHT?!?) who shoves these kidlets into work camps to kill, control, and/or torture them. So, the dystopian usual. Our “Orange” protagonist, Ruby Daly, is one of the last surviving top-tier powered individuals hiding in plain sight as a Green (the others in her power range/color class have all been killed on sight as they are feared above all others) and after six years in a work camp, barely escapes getting super deadsies after her powers are discovered. Enter cute love interest, murky allies, and murkier villains trying to control Ruby before she takes matters into her own hands, stir-don’t-shake, and you have the classic YA cocktail. This one, though, goes down smoother than expected.
The Darkest Minds gets my (increasingly rare) better-than-the-book badge. Yeah. Didn’t see that shit coming. What is drawn out and clunky in the book is streamlined (almost) to within an inch of its life, as well as improved overall in its transition to the silver screen. Every character is largely authentic to the source material (with some of the actors onscreen blunting a few of the harsher edges – for the better – that their novelized counterparts failed to do – notably Mandy Moore’s “Dr. Cate Connor” and Skylan Brooks’ “Charles” aka “Chubs” ), and the pacing is stellar to behold (hitting every narrative beat at just the right clip to keep your interest engaged, but not so fast that you can’t connect with the characters).
The teenage X-Men Breakfast Club (Ruby, Liam, Chubs, and Zu) also gel really well together as a group. But the beating heart of this YA flick is, of course, Amanda Stenberg’s “Ruby” and Harris Dickinson’s “Liam” (shout out to Miya Cech’s almost too adorable “Zu”). Ruby and Liam basically have to fall in love immediately to make this (inevitably) heart-wrenchingly dramatic turn of events work (it’s the beginning of a series/possible franchise- if you think there’s a happy ending here, you’re high). Stenberg’s chemistry with Dickinson is authentic and, I literally hate myself for saying this, adorkable. Harris Dickinson is 22 and I feel a little (okay a lottle) like a creeper but HOLY SHIT WHEN THIS GUY SMILES HIS DIMPLES PALPABLY RADIATE ADORABLE CHARM. I’m throwing up in my mind right now, but I can’t lie, his “Liam” is so cute I want to fold him up in my pocket for a rainy day.
By the climax of this movie, Darkest Minds is going to ask you to be emotionally invested enough that our intrepid heroine’s sacrifice for the greater good (nobody important dies, calm the fuck down) at the end will rip your YA-infused heart out of your chest Kali Ma, Indiana Jones-style. And they kind of super succeed at it (don’t @ me). I’d also like to commend director extraordinaire Jennifer Yih Nelson (of the, weirdly enough, Kung Fu Panda franchise) for milking that PG-13 rating for all it’s worth. There was palpable tension and (largely just offscreen) violence that lent a solid menace to Team Villain, which is insanely hard to do while appealing to both the teen and adult demographic simultaneously (Darkest Minds excels at this element). The action in this teenage wunderflick is engaging and thoroughly contributes to the well-rounded success of this latest entry into the Distopian YA genre.
Don’t get me wrong, this effusive praise is entirely based on the tight scope of the YA genre from which this movie has spawned. In the pantheon of all genres, Darkest Minds might be considered overwrought, over-processed teen melodrama lacking in creative drive and/or depth. Sure. That’s not an unfair assessment (this flick is getting moderately thrashed at large on the review circuit). Maybe I’ve been drinking the YA Kool-Aide too long. But I didn’t overly mind (pun maybe not intended?) that Darkest Minds was a rehashing of several YA and SciFi/Fantasy franchises and elements.
It’s a goddamn patchwork quilt of them that you can ABSOLUTELY pick apart if you look hard enough or just really want to. You could even say that the characters were slightly one dimensional and swam on the shallow end of the cinematic pond in terms of overall development from beginning to end. I’m fully aware of all those things. I just didn’t care because this movie was entertaining, well-directed, fantastically adapted, and solidly executed in every way that counts. You know what you’re signing up for here and for fans of the YA genre, the source narrative (book), and/or anyone looking for a matinee’d, air-conditioned, two hour escape from the August heat/reality? You could do so much worse. I’m not kidding. Cue up Twilight and shift that judge-y paradigm before you come at me for this Darkest Minds review.
Better than previously anticipated, Darkest Minds is coming for them YA ducats and I’m not even mad at that.
Darkest Minds (2018) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: the first time a new power (Green, Blue, Yellow, Red, and/or Orange) debuts.
Take a Sip: whenever someone is afraid of an Orange, Ruby, and/or the Orange mind wipe is used.
Take a Drink: anytime Ruby flips out trying to avoid touching someone/accidentally dips into their mind.
Take a Shot: for every new scene the Gudetama (Ruby’s depressed Japanese egg keychain figure that may be my spirit animal) appears in.
Shotgun Your Beer: when Red Rover, Red Rover, the Reds (more than one) finally come over.