Thursday, 23 August 2018

The Darkest Minds (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: A mysterious disease has spread across the United States, killing most of the children and giving the survivors superhuman abilities. Out of fear of what the disease, or its carriers, could do next, children are rounded up into camps and, if any of them are too powerful, they are exterminated. One of the kids, Ruby (Amandla Stenberg), finds a way out of one of the camps and comes across runaways Liam (Harris Dickinson), Chubs (Skylan Brooks) and Zu (Miya Cech). With the government hunting after them, and no certainty of which (if any) adults they can trust, they'll have to rely on each other in order to survive.

After her role in Everything, Everything, I get the feeling that just about anything would’ve been an improvement for Stenberg to star in next. Not that I need to make direct comparisons along those particular lines, as her performance here definitely gets across a lot of fear about her own power. It also helps that her chemistry with the others is pretty solid, with her and Dickinson making some naturally cute moments. Dickinson himself honestly works out a lot better than he should, considering the rather hefty saviour complex that keeps poking through his dialogue, but he at least comes across like someone who legit would risk his life to save the people he is shown saving.

Brooks… feels like a stock character, and a pretty lazy one at that, considering all he has for a personality is that he’s smart. Cech is okay as the non-verbal member of the main group, Mandy Moore still isn’t impressive as an actor in any fashion, Gwendoline Christie appears as another supposed ‘badass’ who ends up doing next to nothing for the actual story (it’s Captain Phasma all over again), and Patrick Gibson as the “cured” face of the oppressors is remarkably effective, especially once he get more involved with the main plot.

This is Jennifer Yuh Nelson’s first live-action directorial effort, having previously worked on the incredible Kung Fu Panda series (directed the last two and was head of story on the first). Considering the vastly different genre she’s working with here, not to mention the niche that this film is embedded in, this is a pretty decent effort visually speaking. The imagery captured by DOP Kramer Morgenthau (Thor: The Dark World, Chef, Terminator: Genisys) of life inside of the camps, the abandoned shopping mall, along with the climactic fire fight, are all pretty damn spiffy. Not only that, this takes the most preferred route when it comes to adapting a book and translates it into visual storytelling, allowing parts of the story to be explained without anyone needing to explain it out loud. This isn’t the case for all of the exposition, unfortunately, but it shows that this was crafted with the right approach in mind, same for the frequently sunlit scenery that gives this a “dawn of a new age” feel to it. Honestly, the only real hang-up I have with the production here is the music. Benjamin Wallfisch’s compositions are fairly standard, but the licensed music picks are amazingly jarring. It’s a lot of poppy ready-for-the-dancefloor tunes that feels way too chipper for a story that delves into ideas like concentration camps and eugenics.

And then there’s the writing… and it’s where we hit the nosedive. Writer Chad Hodge’s claim to fame is being behind the TV series Wayward Pines, and most of his experience with scripting is in the field of television. That definitely shows here as this feels like an extended first episode to a longer series. Given the film’s origins as a young adult novel, that makes sense to a point but not to the extent of the pacing being as awful as it is here. We aren’t given any real time to connect with the characters, nor do we even get that good of a look into the world they inhabit. All the talk of IAAN and children gaining what are essentially superpowers and the reactions against them are frustratingly vague, with the story seemingly more interesting in just throwing the main cast from one set piece to another. What’s more, no matter what change of scenery, they all operate from the exact same playbook; namely, questioning who if anyone that our leads can trust. It gets rather monotonous after a while, turning this into a thin re-skin of way too much material we’ve seen already.

Which brings us to the elephant in the room: Why are we getting this film now? When I gave my two cents on the conclusion to the Maze Runner trilogy, I basically called it the swan song for the entire generation of YA adaptations that The Hunger Games kick-started. The post-apocalyptic dystopian power fantasy that shows the younger generation rising up against the adults that seek to destroy both them and their world; we’ve been getting a lot of these over the past seven years. Hell, as much as I like The Hunger Games movies and most of the Maze Runner series, even I’m getting burnt-out on these stories. But even with that in mind, I will admit that I was immediately hooked into this film’s take on the theme. The idea of children being born with the ability to do things that others can’t, the adults trying to “cure” them of what isn’t actually an illness, the repeated line of “the only people who can help us are us”… not gonna lie, I can very easily read autistic subtext into this, and it’s subtext that most certainly grabs me.

But then I take a step back and remember how most of these films operate: It’s meant to draw the younger audience in. It’s meant to feel like the members of the audience are being talked to directly, as if the events of the film relate to them in a personal way. This is why a lot of these third-wave YA adaptations are as generic as they are; outside of showing children being separated into distinct groups reminiscent of high school social cliques, there are few specifics to latch onto. Even as someone who reads into the stories of films for a living, I have to admit that whatever nuance I first read into this film was likely me projecting my own mannerisms onto it. Especially since, with the jarring pace and the lack of real world detail, there isn’t a whole lot I can grab onto other than “children are being persecuted by adults”. Given the still-lingering friction between generations (the flak that the survivors of the Stoneman shooting keep getting to this day is proof positive of that), it’s admirable but it’s also a motif that has already been explored far more in-depth, and with far more entertainment value, than what we ultimately get here.

All in all, if Maze Runner: The Death Cure was the swan song for this type of story, then this film is the haggard final breath before the flat line. The acting is decent, particularly from Amandla Stenberg and especially from Patrick Gibson, and the visuals show that director Jennifer Yuh Nelson could have potential in the live-action realm… but man, for yet another YA adaptation in the wake of The Hunger Games, this is way too generic and way too cluttered to really vibe with. As much as some elements here could bear fruit in a continued series, between the stillborn status of the Divergent series and the dead stop of The 5th Wave back in 2016, I highly doubt that is going to happen. Let this wave die already so we can continue with the string of illness-related romances that comprise the latest wave of YA adaptations.

It ranks higher than Breath, as no amount of weaksauce dystopia tropes can match up to hand-waving pedophilia; the problems with that film are far more egregious in direct comparison. But this also ranks below Maya The Bee: The Honey Games, where my gripes are far more subjective, considering it’s not exactly a film made with someone my age in mind. I just barely qualify as an young adult nowadays, so there’s still some worth I get out of films like this, but it still has a lot of rather objective problems at its core.

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