‘The Darkest Minds’ is the Same Old Young Adult Song and Dance

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I went into “The Darkest Minds” thinking it was a “X-Men” spinoff. It deals with kids who have been ostracized from society once they are revealed to have obtained superpowers under mysterious circumstances, and it is being distributed by 20th Century Fox which also distributes the “X-Men” movies. With this in mind, I kept waiting for the main characters to yell out “mutant freedom” as loudly as those teenagers from “Red Dawn” cried out “Wolverines!” at any given opportunity. Lord knows the “X-Men” franchise shows no signs of slowing down even after the dramatic conclusion of “Logan.”

Well, it turns out “The Darkest Minds” is not an “X-Men” movie, but instead another adaptation of a best-selling young adult novel which takes place in an apocalyptic future. Written by Alexandra Bracken, this novel led to a series of others, so clearly Hollywood has set its sights on another potential franchise. But while “The Darkest Minds” might have seemed enthralling on the page, it comes off as just another young adult adventure on the silver screen. After the burnout of the “Divergent” franchise, I figured Hollywood would have finally tired of taping into the young adult book market, but these movies do still represent an a strong opportunity for studios to reach out to most desirable of demographics.

Once again, we are thrust into a dystopian future where the pandemic I.A.A.N. (Idiopathic Adolescent Acute Neurodegeneration) has killed 98% of humans under the age of 20. The rest who have survived develop amazing psychic powers under mysterious circumstances, and we all know how quick the world is to react to those people who are different. These children are quickly rounded up and sent to internment camps where they are separated from their families and identified by colors. And yes, there is a President of the United States (played by Bradley Whitford) determined to find a cure for this epidemic, but it is no surprise to see him flaunting a phony child reform program which those brainwashed my certain news channels are quick to believe in. Sound familiar? I mean, heaven forbid “The Darkest Minds” reflect today’s reality in any way, shape or form, you know?

Among these children is Ruby Daly (Amandla Stenberg), a young girl who accidentally erased her existence from the minds of her parents. On a scale, which looks a lot like the Homeland Security Advisory System, she is listed as an orange which classifies her as the most dangerous of the kids afflicted with psychic powers. But thanks to her mental powers which help her perform a mind trick much like the kind Obi-Wan Kenobi performed in “Star Wars,” she is able to escape the mandatory execution her kind gets. But even she knows it is only a matter of time before she is found out.

For a time, I thought “The Darkest Minds” would become the most politically subversive movie since “They Live,” but it eventually devolves into just another young adult adventure which is like so many we have seen previously. It features a strong and demographically desirable female character who looks to be the one to save humanity and/or dominate society in a way those in power are eager to take advantage of, and the story ends on a cliffhanger as the studio is unsurprisingly eager to make a sequel. But watching this movie reminded me of a little tidbit I read in Premiere Magazine back when it was in print as it summed up another potential franchise in a short sentence:

“’Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins…’ and ends.”

Ruby manages to escape the camp with the help of the kindly Doctor Cate Connor (Mandy Moore), but when she feels Cate may have other plans in mind for her, she flees and meets up with a group of kids who have also been afflicted with psychic powers and are just as demographically desirable. This group includes the rugged Liam Stewart (Harris Dickinson), the highly intelligent Chubs (Skylan Brooks), and the electrifying Zu (Miya Cech) who has since been rendered mute. As you can expect, Ruby and Liam get the hots for one another, and its hard not to laugh at the romantic scenes they have as their dialogue threatens to be as awkward as what Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman were forced to utter in “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.”

Everything in “The Darkest Minds” feels like it was borrowed from some other movie. The kids discover a radio signal alerting them to a haven for I.A.A.N. kids, and it seems stolen from a similar scene in “28 Days Later.” The dance scene where Ruby and Liam get a little more intimate kept reminding me of the giant rave scene from “The Matrix Reloaded,” and not in a good way. Ruby’s ability to erase memories from the minds of others feels like a direct steal from “Superman II” as Clark Kent found a way to cure Lois Lane of her heartbreak. I know Hollywood movies are seriously lacking in originality these days, so this one ends up looking extremely desperate for ideas as a result.

When the kids get to use their mysteriously acquired powers, their eyes light up a certain color, and I kept waiting for Eric Carmen’s “Hungry Eyes” to start playing on the soundtrack. As for the powers they possess, I was not particularly impressed with them as they are much like the kind in every “X-Men” movie. I do have to say, however, that Zu doe a more impressive job of channeling electricity than Jamie Foxx ever did in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

But perhaps the most damaging aspect of “The Darkest Minds” is the endless number of plot holes which the dinosaurs from “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” could have been quick to escape through. In a time where kids are being hunted by the government, how did Ruby and her friends manage to acquire a hotel room? When the kids invade a mall which has been abandoned for some time, how could they possibly find a new and unexpired bottle of Vitamin Water in it? And when the main characters arrive at a haven for kids of their kind and discover the person who leads it, shouldn’t this have raised their suspicions almost immediately? It is questions like these which make this young adult adventure unbearable at times to sit through.

For what it’s worth, “The Darkest Minds” fares better than some of the other young adult adventures I have seen in recent years. It proved to be more entertaining and memorable than “The 5th Wave,” and I was more interested in checking this one out than I was in watching any of “The Maze Runner” movies. Amandla Stenberg does give a very strong performance as Ruby, and she makes us invest fully in her character’s endless conflicts and dilemmas. It was also great to see Gwendoline Christie show up as Lady Jane, a bounty hunter of superpowered teens. Her character is essentially Captain Phasma from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi,” but without the helmet. Christie is a thrilling presence here, and that’s even though she disappears from the movie far too soon.

“The Darkest Minds” ends up traveling down a cinematic path which has been trodden on more often than not, and what results is a motion picture which is coming out five years later than it should. Even its target audience must be worn out from these different variations of the same story as nothing new is brought to the table. Despite the efforts of the filmmakers, this young adult adventure is inescapably ordinary, and I don’t think we will be seeing a follow up to it in the near future.

However, I do have to take the time to award Wade Williams with the John P. Ryan award for overacting in a motion picture. As the brutal military leader called The Captain, he chews the scenery with his endless snarling at others, and I could not help but laugh hysterically. Clearly this is not going to go down as his best work, but here he was never less than entertaining.

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’47 Meters Down’ Thrills You Just When You Thought it was Safe to Go Back into the Water

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From its poster, “47 Meters Down” looks like one of those Syfy flicks like “Sharknado” or “Lavalantula” which are enjoyable for being infinitely silly and having pathetic CGI effects. Or perhaps it would be like one of those knockoff movies from The Asylum, a production company shameless in capitalizing on blockbuster films by using titles and screenplays similar to them (“Snakes on a Train” or “Transmorphers” anyone?). Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to make something similar to the 2016 sleeper hit “The Shallows” which stared Blake Lively as a surfer who has to use her wits in order to keep from being eaten by a great white shark. Either way, I came into this movie figuring it would be one you should not take the least bit seriously and enjoy for all the wrong reasons.

But to my surprise, “47 Meters Down” is a very effective thriller which is lean in its execution, and its main intent is to take you on a pulse pounding ride. In many ways, it is like Renny Harlin’s “Deep Blue Sea” which, while by no means an artistic triumph, played around with the clichés we remember most from shark movies like “Jaws,” and it employs them to where we think we know what to expect, but our expectations are thrown for a loop. What results is a motion picture which knows exactly what it needs to do and how to do it.

Mandy Moore and Clair Holt star as Lisa and Kate, sisters who, as the movie starts, are on vacation in Mexico. One night they run into some local guys who invite them to go cage diving for sharks. Just like Richard Dreyfuss in “Jaws,” these two women will be lowered into the ocean in a cage where they will get to see those sharp-toothed creatures up close without being eaten. But of course, we all know things will not go as planned as our two leads and the characters around them make one stupid mistake after another. Then again, if they didn’t make those mistakes, there would be no movie.

The clichés abound in “47 Meters Down” as the boat the ladies will be traveling on looks far too rusty to sail anywhere safely. You have Matthew Modine on board as the captain of the ship, Taylor, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of Quint from “Jaws.” There’s also the fact that these ladies have never scuba-dived before, and you know this is just asking to invite disaster. We have the air gauges which act as the plot’s ticking time bomb as the ladies threaten to run out of air sooner than they think, they cut themselves to where blood flows from their bodies, thus inviting any shark in the vicinity to drop by and feast on human flesh, and there’s always the one guy who is there to save everybody’s ass, but we all know how long he will last (or do we?).

Lisa also exhibits tremendous anxiety about doing this even as Kate assures her this will be the best time the two of them have ever had (it won’t). Hearing this conversation between them immediately reminded me of a number of “Star Wars” characters saying this infamous line from one movie to the next: “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” Another unforgettable piece of dialogue which crossed my mind was Jon Voight’s line from “Deliverance” when he said to Burt Reynolds, “Let’s go back to town and play golf.” This was good advice which was left unheeded, and it makes perfect sense how Lisa’s common sense could be overturned by Kate’s need for adventure.

As you can imagine, everything goes terribly wrong as the boat winch breaks, and the women plummet down 47 meters to the seafloor. Director Johannes Roberts wisely keeps the majority of the action underwater as Lisa and Kate struggle to stay calm and not use up their dwindling supply of air. He puts us right in their shoes as, like them, we are left to wonder what the crew members in the boat are doing to bring them back to the surface or if they are doing anything at all. Roberts is also aided strongly by a pulse-pounding film score from Tomandandy whose work on “Killing Zoe” and “The Hills Have Eyes” remake rank among my favorites. Their music heightens an already intense motion picture to something which will fry your nerves and leave you on the edge of your seat even as we are forced to endure some unintentionally hilarious moments.

Granted, you can’t always expect David Mamet or Aaron Sorkin to be underwater with you when words fail you. When Moore cries out about how the shark almost got me, the audience I was with couldn’t help but laugh as it seems like such a silly thing to say. But then again, what would really say if we were stuck in the same predicament? I doubt we would be uttering a monologue out of Eugene O’Neill’s “A Long Day’s Journey into Night.” Of course, it always helps to have John Milius around when you need him.

Moore and Holt do strong work in creating a bond between and work hard to create characters who, while not having too much in the way of depth, quickly realize they need one another to survive this ordeal. Seeing one of them take off their mask and remove their oxygen tank just to get through the bars of the cage is enough to make one shiver, and this is accomplished without the use of special effects. The actresses are also aided by actor Matthew Modine who plays the Captain of the boat, Taylor. For the most part, we hear his voice more than we see him, but he gives strong support as he encourages his guests, people he never should have put in any danger, a reason to stay calm. In addition, he also reminds the ladies and the audience that the bends is not just the title of a Radiohead album.

Roberts previously directed “The Other Side of the Door,” a supernatural horror thriller which started off well, but later got bogged down in clichés it would have been smarter to avoid. “47 Meters Down,” however, is all about clichés, and just as Harlin did with “Deep Blue Sea,” he manages to manipulate those clichés to where we think we know what to expect, and then we are totally caught off guard. Just watch the scene where the actresses are playing around with an underwater camera, and you will understand what I mean.

Yes, the sharks are CGI, but they are still frightening antagonists in this movie. After a while, the terror comes from a combination of what we think is going on above the water as well as what we cannot see. The water is made to look especially murky to where we can’t see much of what is in front of us, and this leads to an especially scary moment when a character swims out to a certain point, and then suddenly can’t remember the direction in which she came.

Look, “47 Meters Down” is not Oscar material, but it never pretends to be either. While it may not reach the heights of “Jaws” or the unbearable intensity of “Open Water,” it is a taut thriller which will allow the audience a nice diversion for a couple of hours. Roberts and his cast understand exactly what this movie aims to be, and they deliver in a way which will get your adrenaline pumping. You can laugh all you want at the foolishness of the characters, but in this instance their foolishness is necessary for this movie to work at all.

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