Review: The Darkest Minds Falls Short as a Poor Man’s Mutant Story

The only thing missing from The Darkest Minds is a Stan Lee cameo and maybe a quickie Wolverine appearance. And I’m fairly certain that the only thing stopping the studio that made the X-Men movies from suing the one that made this movie is that it’s the same studio, Twentieth Century Fox.

Darkest Minds
Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Based on the young-adult novel (the first of three, if I understand, plus some novellas) by Alexandra Bracken, The Darkest Minds is a blatant and fairly gross attempt to cash in on the popularity of both The Hunger Games movies (lots of dead kids in both) and the Marvel franchise that chronicles the adventures of our favorite mutants, then wrapping it all up in an empty love story that makes the whole affair feel lackluster and pointless.

Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson (Kung Fu Panda 2 & 3, which are undeniably better movies than this) and adapted by Chad Hodge, The Darkest Minds is set in a reality where a strange disease of unknown origin ends up killing a huge percentage of the children (presumably planet-wide, although that’s never clarified, and neither is the age of when someone isn’t considered a child anymore). The children who remain all seem to have some level of special powers, everything from being super-smart to telekinetic to something much more dangerous. Clancy (Patrick Gibson), the son of President Gray (Bradley Whitford), survives the disease and is put up as the poster child for “recovery,” something scientists are working hard on to remove these powers from the surviving kids.

Since some of the children are considered dangerous, all of them around round up and sent to massive internment centers/work camps while the scientific community works on curing them. That’s right, we get to see kids separated from their family and put into cages in this film—and while the timeliness is purely coincidental, that doesn’t stop the visual from being startling.

Our entry point into this story is Ruby (Amandla Stenberg, from The Hunger Games and Everything, Everything), who as a child, accidentally erased her parents’ memories of her with a power she didn’t know she had until she used it. Scared and now alone, she is put in a camp where she discovers that each new child is color coded based on how much of a risk they are to others. Orange and Red are the most dangerous (and are put to death); Green and Blue are basically uber-nerds. Ruby is diagnosed as Orange, but once again she uses her power to erase her doctor’s memory, and she lives the next few years in relative safety (if you don’t count a few sadistic guards).

Ruby is put in danger once again when all of the children are re-tested once it becomes clear that a few risky children have slipped through the cracks. But a kindly prison volunteer (and former social worker) named Cate (Mandy Moore) promisees to help Ruby escape. It turns out that Cate and her partner Rob (Mark O’Brien) belong to a group called The League that saves imprisoned powerful children and trains them to fight against the government. But some children don’t want to be turned into weapons by either side, and as Ruby becomes more powerful, it becomes clear that both the League and Gray’s government want to use her as a soldier. Shortly after her rescue, Ruby meets a small group of kids traveling together and very much not interested in being a part of the League, so she runs away with them, hesitantly at first.

Because Ruby and one of the other kids, Liam (Harris Dickinson of Beach Rats), are both the best looking and most powerful of this band of children, the plot pushes them together in a senseless romantic pairing that further distracts the two at a time in their life when emotions and hormones are already clouding their judgement. Throw in super powers and people out to kill or exploit them, and emotional volatility is a certainty, leading people to make stupid decisions.

In fact, this is a movie of stupid decisions. For example, Ruby is fixated on the idea of getting back to her parents, even though she knows that they won’t know her and don’t miss her. And the second she peers through their window all these years later, she regrets going in the first place.

Nobody is who they seem, and that’s pretty easy to tell immediately. And while Stenberg is certainly a captivating presence, there’s very little for her to do except touch people to read their mind and control them a little. One of the few decent things in The Darkest Minds was the character of Lady Jane (Gwendoline Christie of “Game of Thrones” and the latest batch of Star Wars movies). Although her character of bounty hunter of children Lady Jane is short-changed in terms of screen time, Christie makes her someone whose history I wanted to learn more about.

That’s more than I can say for most of the other characters, who are mutants, even though they’re not allowed to say mutants, since this isn’t legally an X-Men movie, even though it is…but it’s not…

In fact, the film is so derivative of other young-adult fare of late, it becomes a game of Spot The Reference/Ripoff. The film does end with an interesting conundrum about memory, and if this storyline continues, I’m curious how that plays out. But everything else is limp and uninspired and not worth your time or money.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.