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The flat, boring dystopia Darkest Minds misses an obvious chance at cultural relevance

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How could anyone make a film about America’s fascist leadership stealing people’s children feel this meaningless at this moment in history?

Photo: Daniel McFadden / Twentieth Century Fox

The Darkest Minds is based on a 2012 young adult novel by Alexandra Bracken, but its themes and plot are up to the minute. A story about children who are taken from their parents and warehoused, government camps, and a callous, mendacious authoritarian president couldn’t be much more relevant in the Trump era. The book was pretty standard fare, but the film had an unexpected chance to capitalize on, and speak to, present policies that seem as bleak and cruel as any nightmare apocalypse.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen. Instead of building on its most pertinent themes — or on any themes — The Darkest Minds wanders around haplessly in a fog of tired tropes and unmotivated bits of plot. It has neither inspiration nor purpose, and it eventually, almost literally, effervesces into blank irrelevance.

It’s hard to describe the plot of The Darkest Minds because of one of its central problems: there’s too much narrative. The novel felt like one damn thing after another, but with director Jennifer Yuh Nelson helplessly jamming all those elements into a 105-minute run time, the frantic rush from underdeveloped villain to underdeveloped villain starts to feel like a master class in how not to write a Hollywood script.

Here are the basics: America is devastated by a mysterious illness that kills some children while granting others mysterious psychic powers. Protagonist Ruby Daly (Amandla Stenberg) learns she has the ability to control minds when she accidentally erases her parents’ memory of her. Her amnesiac parents turn her over to the authorities, who take her to a camp where she uses her mind-wipe abilities to hide the fact that she has mind-wipe abilities. The camp guards find a way to flush her out, but she’s rescued by a secret organization called the League of Children.

This is all before the movie properly starts. There’s a scrappy band of runaways Ruby joins and a leader of a children’s retreat that is Not What It Seems. And bounty hunters. And the League of Children is Not What It Seems either. There’s also a large blue van that the film wants viewers to regard with affection, and a trip back to Ruby’s parents, who do nothing in particular, and so forth — development on development and reveal on reveal, with no particular impact.

Photo by Daniel McFadden / 20th Century Fox

Having so much happen so quickly makes it impossible for any event to carry emotional weight, which is a real problem in a narrative that’s fairly explicitly referencing a range of real-life historical atrocities. Casting a black actress and having her character torn from her parents, can’t help but call to mind the separation of children from their parents during America’s slavery era, not to mention the country’s current nightmarish immigration policies. But the film is so eager to get to the next plot point that it never bothers to give Ruby’s parents personalities or histories. Ruby erases herself from their memories, but they were never really in the film to begin with. Stenberg does her best to portray trauma, but there’s not much she can do about the fact that her mom and dad are little more than props.

And they aren’t the only one-dimensional aspects of the film. The Darkest Minds sets the machinery of fascism down like so many cardboard cutouts. Scenes of kids in camps and a late shot referencing Triumph of the Will are supposed to be enough to provide the emotional and moral weight that the scriptwriters forgot to include in their drafts. A future without children is an eerie, disturbing idea, but Nelson never tries to address the grief, desperation, or hollowness of the ensuing world. Instead, she offers up a pointless car chase and a shopping scene cribbed from Dawn of the Dead that goes on for a while.

A lot could be forgiven if the love story worked. But again, the need to get everyone from villain A to villain B and back to villain A with a detour for villain C interferes with the character development necessary for effective catharsis. The novel doesn’t exactly sell the romance either, to be fair, but there, at least, leading guy Liam (Harris Dickinson) has his own backstory and some space to grow in the affections of Ruby and the readers. The movie version gives Liam and Ruby little more than pallid banter and familiar will they / won’t they tension. They even mention Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley in a moment of meta-critique that’s just as likely to make the audience wince as smile.

It would be easy to dismiss Dickinson as a stiff with the charisma of a board, but Stenberg is talented, and she’s equally adrift in banter without wit and flirtations without flirt. The film ends with an embarrassing bland montage of the couple’s cute moments together, which shows those cute moments to be every bit as insubstantial and unmemorable as they looked the first time around.

Photo by Daniel McFadden / 20th Century Fox

The novel The Darkest Minds was a faded pastiche of X-Men and The Hunger Games to begin with, so it may be foolish to have vague hopes that a film adaptation might use the book’s grotesque authoritarian future America to address our current grotesque authoritarian America and come up with something that transcended the source material. It’s a mediocre rip-off of mediocre ideas, indifferently written, directed, and acted by people who all seem — for good reason — to wish they were somewhere else.

As it is, though, the times have conspired to make The Darkest Minds not just bad, but actively offensive. Maybe at another historical juncture, fascist imagery and clueless exploitation of the pain of child separation wouldn’t look quite so ugly. Maybe the film could have just been what it tells us, over and over, in so many words, that it wants to be: an insubstantial genre exercise, designed to vanish from the audience’s head as soon as it’s over. Unfortunately, our current dystopia isn’t so easy to forget.