Adapted from a series of popular YA novels by author Alexandra Bracken, The Darkest Minds marks the live-action directorial debut of Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who directed the second Kung Fu Panda movie and co-directed the third. Envisioned as the beginning of a new franchise for 20th Century Fox (which may have been looking for a Bryan Singer-free alternative to the increasingly troubled/expensive X-Men series), the film flopped at the box office when it opened in August. Looking at the finished film, that fate isn't entirely surprising: while there are a fair share of effective moments and performances, the film doesn't fully stand out from other YA thrillers like The Hunger Games and Divergent (or Fox's own Maze Runner), and it gets trapped in a tonal gap, too gloomy and brutal for younger kids, but too basic and simplistic for older teens who would probably rather see the newest Marvel movie.
Right from the beginning, the tone is off: the movie kicks off with a sequence featuring the death of a young girl in a school cafeteria, then builds to the kids on buses being taken to the camps that feels like an outtake from Children of Men. One can guess that Nelson's approach stems both from respect for her source material and for the film's teen audience, but the results feel self-serious rather than sincere. In the same opening stretch, the movie sets up Ruby's character, and there's a sense the movie might work better focusing on this emotional idea rather than broad universe-building, especially when that universe is essentially one the audience will recognize not just from similar YA material, but from movies in general.
After Ruby connects with her fellow runaways, the movie improves significantly, focusing on the makeshift family dynamic of Ruby, Liam, Chubs, and Zu, and checking back in on the emotional core of Ruby's story. Nelson and her team stage a decent car chase sequence involving the teens, Dr. Begbie, and a mercenary named Lady Jane (Gwendoline Christie), as well as some business in a mall involving levitation. These sequences move the plot forward but mostly focus on the character dynamics, and the performers are generally up to the task, especially Brooks and Cech. Stenberg and Dickinson have decent chemistry, as do Stenberg and Patrick Gibson as the mysterious "Slip Kid," who runs a secret encampment where runaway kids can hide out from other mercenaries, the government, and even the organization that Dr. Begbie works for.
Once the teens reach the camp, the obviousness of the plot's upcoming twists and turns weighs on the proceedings, especially with the character material taking a backseat to the story. By the time the movie has zigzagged back toward character for a reasonably satisfying emotional finale, there's a sense that the book would've been better adapted into a TV show that allowed for more focus on character and more space to enrich the plot with more substance. The obviousness of the dangling threads leaves the movie feeling like a glorified pilot episode anyway, with the added disappointment of knowing, watching the film on home video, that these threads aren't going to be paid off in a future installment. The Darkest Minds is far from a disaster, compelling enough for at least one viewing, but a prime lesson in the limitations of how far good intentions can go.
The Video and Audio
First up, there is an audio commentary with director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, producer Dan Levine, and executive producer Dan Cohen. This is a relatively lighthearted track (even as the participants acknowledge the eerie similarities between some of the film's early scenes and semi-recent current events), with all three tending toward anecdotes about shooting each individual sequences, with any comments about grander themes or intents stemming out of those day-to-day details. Nelson laughs quite a bit, although it's a bit tragic to hear the trio talk so optimistically about future movies in the series, given the movie's poor box office performance.
The first chunk of video extras are essentially more footage from the making of the film. ?"Remember: A Look Beyond Ruby and Liam's Last Kiss" (3:55) is an animatic created by director Jennifer Yuh Nelson when she was pitching the movie. Although there are elements from the clip that have been incorporated into the film's actual ending, there are also some brief glimpses of scenes that occur earlier in the finished film, as well as a segment created just for the Blu-ray where Nelson explicitly sets up those doomed sequels. This is followed by a single deleted scene, "Chubs Confronts Ruby" (1:28), which is brief enough that it probably could've stayed in the finished film, as it sets up the character of Liam a bit more clearly. A single, brief storyboard-to-screen comparison (0:59) is also on offer. These three extras all feature optional commentary by Nelson, Levine, and Cohen. A gag reel (3:44) is not particularly funny, but features some good B-roll, including Stenberg's hiccups.
Featurettes are next. "Jennifer Yuh Nelson: Heroine at the Helm" (17:24) is the best of the disc's video extras, digging into Nelson's style and approach to making the movie, and checking in on the film's various players as to what the experience of working with her was like. There's a slick, promotional veneer to some of the talking head segments, but the whole featurette is worth it to hear Miya Cech say she hopes to direct some day and that she looks up to Nelson.
The rest of the featurettes are an exercise in diminishing returns. There is a series of fluffy, somewhat tedious character profiles: "Ruby: Harnessing Hope" (4:54), "Liam: A Complicated Relationship" (5:06), "Chubs: Found Family" (4:13), "Zu: Awakened Abilities" (5:54), and "Clancy: Crafting a Possible Future" (5:59). These are more in line with traditional EPK material, with clips and the actors explaining their characters, before a minimal amount of actual info. Of course, these are better than the final two featurettes, which are essentially ads for Georgia film production: "The Power of Georgia" (5:00) and "Behind-the-Scenes in Georgia" (2:06). Much like the film's opening, these have an unfortunate crossover with the real world, with the disc coming out just before a number of performers voiced opposition to film production in Georgia following the midterm elections, including Darkest Minds actor Bradley Whitford. The disc wraps up with a gallery (2:08).
Trailers for The Hate U Give, Maze Runner: The Death Cure, and Love, Simon play before the main menu (with navigation popups as they play), and are also accessible under the special feature selection "Sneak Peek". An original theatrical trailer for The Darkest Minds is also included.