Before the opening credits of The Darkest Minds, more than 90 percent of the world’s children are dead and we’re not sure why.
That provocative concept is never paid off in this adaptation of the popular novel by Alexandra Bracken, which features familiar thematic ideas from genre predecessors and marks a transparent attempt to launch another young-adult franchise with a mediocre first chapter.
The fallout from that opening pandemic finds the surviving kiddos quarantined in camps, and separated into color-coded factions based on the severity of their symptoms, which translate into powers such as telekinesis, electrical manipulation, or even mind and memory control.
Ruby (Amandla Stenberg) falls into the rare latter category, which means she’s labeled as dangerous by the fearful government that controls the camps. She manages to escape with the help of a nurse (Mandy Moore) who might have ulterior motives.
After some time on the run, she winds up forming a surrogate family of sorts with three ragtag fellow survivors — the alluring Liam (Harris Dickinson), nerdy Chubs (Skylan Brooks), and mute Zu (Miya Cech) — whose collective powers help them reach a perceived safe haven.
However, as secrets are gradually revealed, the quartet suspects they might fall into a trap, and face another perilous path to escape.
You can admire these scrappy youngsters for their resilience. The cast is engaging, and teenage moviegoers might identify more closely with the angst-ridden protagonists. Yet the film overall needs more context, and more well-defined conflict, for its premise to generate much of an emotional impact.
As it combines elements of action, romance, and science fiction, the live-action debut of director Jennifer Yuh Nelson (Kung Fu Panda 2) generates some mild tension from its ominous dystopian landscape.
It also incorporates a muddled sociopolitical subtext, of course, involving resistance to an oppressive authoritarian regime that has some degree of contemporary relevance. And rookie screenwriter Chad Hodge offers half-hearted messages about self-esteem and gender equality.
The Darkest Minds is mostly laying the groundwork while forgoing the payoff. Withholding some of the key developments from the source material — which has expanded into a six-book series thus far — is essentially a gamble that the series will continue. That hardly seems like a sure bet.