Thanks to the Twilight movie franchise there is now a pervasive cynicism toward Hollywood’s adaptations of young adult novels. Series such as Twilight and The Hunger Games have taught us to expect the kind of melodramatic love triangles that send “tween “girls into hysterics as well as low-brow fantasy and sci-fi elements that even segments of the audience that prefer Downton Abbey can follow. The Maze Runner stakes its claim in the crowded genre by avoiding the typical love story plot and a presenting an action packed thriller with a surprisingly gritty tone.
The movie begins with a teenage boy named Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) waking up in a rapidly ascending elevator as he is delivered to a mysterious encampment known as the Glade. Alby (Aml Ameen) and Newt (Thomas Brodie Sangster) the first and second in command of the glade respectively, immediately take Thomas under their wing. Thomas quickly learns that the glade resides inside of an inscrutable maze and that the only way out is through a door that closes every night, trapping those who enter inside with its mysterious defence system. During a frantic attempt to save a Glader too hurt to make his way out of the maze, Thomas ends up trapped inside the maze over night. Armed only with his wits, Thomas outsmarts the maze’s defences and becomes the first boy to survive the night, in turn setting off a chain of events that force the residents of the Glade to choose between riding out the increasing threat of the maze’s defense systems and risking their lives inside the maze for a chance of freedom.
A constantly rearranging city sized maze is an awesome concept for a sci-fi movie and The Maze Runner keeps the concept thrilling throughout the entire film. The ramshackle world of the Maze looks physically imposing as well as psychologically intimidating and does an exceptional job of making us believe that even a tag team between Macgyver and the A-Team (managed by David Tennant as Dr. Who) could remain trapped inside with the other inhabitants for 3 years. Seeing the characters frantically dashing through the constantly evolving maze and barely escaping death was reminiscent of both the iconic scene in Indian Jones where Harrison Ford flees from the giant boulder as well as the kids outmaneuvering One-eyed Willie’s death-traps during the underground treasure hunt in The Goonies.
Anyone anticipating The Maze Runner to be a plodding love story with sci-fi elements is in for a surprise. The Maze Runner skips the love story completely (though it is poised to kick in for the sequels) and presents us with a solid action movie in its own right. The action set pieces between the Gladers and the maze’s defense systems are intense, gritty and terrifying and add weight to the notion that factions of the Gladers would rather fortify and hope for the best instead of subjecting themselves to the maze’s unrelenting horrors.
As far as young adult fiction films go, The Maze Runner presents us with an exceptionally bland cast of characters. If we went on a trip to Smurf Village and took away Brainy Smurfs glasses, Hefty Smurfs muscles and tattoo and Papa Smurfs red garments and hipster beard, threw them in a bag and mixed them up, it would still be easier to make out the personalities of the the little blue trio than distinguish between the cast of The Maze Runner. As the film’s protagonist, Thomas has the dreamy good looks required for the lead in this type of role and little else. Sure, on paper he displays all the qualities necessary for a hero including risking his life for his fellow Gladers, taking charge when things go awry, selflessness and inspiring bravery but he lacks the type of personality quirks that would endears him to us as something more that an empty vessel to propel the plot forward. With the exception of the bellyaching Gally (a very curmudgeonly Will Poulter), the cast of characters were so bland and inconsequential that director Wes Ball could have pulled names out of a hat to decide who lives and dies and it wouldn’t affect the plot or the emotional arc of the story.
I have seen my share of horror movies where the film’s mysterious Boogey Man was terrifying until the moment that it finally steps out of the shadows and reveals itself and the mystery of the maze feels very similar. The treacherous maze is the most compelling element of The Maze runner and sadly, once the film revealed its secrets the reality behind the myth was a letdown. The trait that The Maze Runner has that is most similar to other young adult fiction film series movies is that the momentum from revealing of the maze’s secret is clearly meant to carry the audience over into the film’s sequels. Although the film’s plot has a distinct beginning middle and an end, the emotional journey is unsatisfying as The Maze Runner is clearly an entry point for more stories and films.
If you took The Running Man and Lord Of The Flies, mixed them together and then watered them down you would have something very similar to the Maze Runner. Although the film’s failure to give us characters that we want to root for lowered the stakes during the film’s solid action set pieces, the Maze Runner’s mythology was compelling enough to hold my attention until the next film.