Remember when dystopian young-adult action franchises — like “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent” and “The Maze Runner” — were supposed to make us forget about our real-world problems? No such luck with the hit-or-miss “The Darkest Minds,” which starts with scenes of children separated from their families and held in detention camps.
The set-up for this uncomfortable scenario is that, in the very near future that too closely resembles “Children of Men,” a mysterious disease strikes all of America’s children. Most die, but a small percentage survive with heightened abilities. The government starts to color-code children by their new powers: Green for super-smart kids, gold for ones who can manipulate electricity and blue for those with telekinetic powers are deemed safe. The reds and oranges are considered a threat, and are killed immediately.
Ruby Daly (played as a 10-year-old by Lidya Jewett) is an Orange. She soon figures out what that means: She can, like The Shadow, cloud men’s minds and make them do her will. She also can, with a touch, walk around in another person’s memories. She survives her first exam by making the doctor (Wallace Langham) classify her as a Green.
Fast-forward six years, and Ruby — now played by Amandla Stenberg, who made a splash as innocent Rue in the first “Hunger Games” movie — is about to be discovered as an Orange. A kind-appearing doctor, Kate (Mandy Moore), helps her escape the camp, under the nose of the nasty Capt. McManus (Wade Williams), whom Ruby hits with a “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for”-level mind trick.
Kate tells Ruby about a support network, The Children’s League, that is rescuing children and training them to fight the oppressive regime of President Clay (Bradley Whitford) that is imprisoning all the children. But Ruby’s not sure to trust Kate, especially when she runs into a trio of rogue kids — Liam (Harris Dickinson), a Blue and a natural leader; Charles, aka Chubs (Skylan Brooks), a brainy Green; and Zu (Miya Cech), a mute Gold. Liam used to train with the League, and convinces Ruby they’re bad news.
So Ruby joins up with Ruby, Chubs and Zu, and hits the road. Their goal is East River, a rumored safe haven organized by a mysterious figure known only as the Slip Kid. To get there, though, they must avoid the government forces and the Tracers, bounty hunters like the scarily tough Lady Jane (“Game of Thrones’” Gwendoline Christie).
There are plenty of twists on the road to East River, but they — like the attraction between Ruby and Liam — feel all-too-predictable in Chad Hodge’s script (adapted from Alexandra Bracken’s novel). Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, making her live-action debut after helming the second and third “Kung Fu Panda” movies, has a solid sense of action pacing, but her real strength is fostering a strong chemistry among her teen actors.
“The Darkest Minds” is the first installment in what Bracken wrote as a trilogy, but I have a sneaking suspicion we won’t see the second and third movies come to fruition. There’s not quite enough oomph to sustain this story into more chapters. Besides, it’s hard to get excited about end-of-the-world scenarios when we see them playing out on the news.
‘The Darkest Minds’
Opens Friday, August 3, in theaters everywhere. Rated PG-13 for violence including disturbing images, and thematic elements. Running time: 105 minutes.