A film review by Craig J. Koban September 26, 2014 

THE MAZE RUNNER jjj
 

2014, PG-13, 113 mins.

 

Dylan O'Brien as Thomas  /  Will Poulter as Gally  /  Aml Ameen as Alby  /  Ki Hong Lee as Minho  /  Thomas Sangster as Newt  /   Dexter Darden as Fry Pan  /  Kaya Scodelario as Teresa  /  Chris Sheffield as Ben  /  Joe Adler as Zart  /   /  Patricia Clarkson as Ava Paige  /  Jacob Latimore as Jeff  

Directed by Wes Ball  /  Written by Grant Pierce Myers, Noah Oppenheim and T.S. Nowlin, based on the novel by James Dashner

There have been relatively so many young-adult fantasy novels adapted to the silver screen lately that I’ve frankly lost count.  Some have been exceptional (THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE), some have been mediocre (DIVERGENT), and some have been downright cruddy (THE HOST, I AM NUMBER FOUR, any TWILIGHT film of your choosing).  

As a result, it was with great reluctance that I screened THE MAZE RUNNER, yet another dystopian sci-fi work based on literary material (James Dashner’s 2007 novel of the same name, the first in a trilogy).  Even thought the film becomes completely unhinged in its final 20 minutes or so, I was quite surprised and taken in with it, which established itself – at least for its first two-thirds – as a reasonably gripping, refreshingly dark, intensely scary, and consummately directed genre effort. 

Yes…yes…THE MAZE RUNNER ostensibly deals with the standard, made-to-order troupes of these teen-centric dystopian thrillers, to be sure.  Yet, I think that what segregates this film apart from the rest of the pack of recent YA sci-fi flicks is that it owes considerably more to, say, THE LORD OF THE FLIES in its story, themes and tone.  Plus, there’s no obtrusively unnecessary love triangle between three doomed adolescents that distracts us from the narrative thrust of the story.  Furthermore, THE MAZE RUNNER is surprisingly tense, violent, and more unsettling than most other YA films and does a solid job of world building using characters and atmosphere first and glossy and expensive CG artifice a distant second.  The director here, Wes Ball (a former visual effects artist), compellingly doesn’t fill the screen with eye-popping visual effects.  Instead, he gives the film a nice tactile look and feel and commands decent performances from his young ensemble cast.  There are so very few YA films these days that are driven by performances, actor interplay, and an escalating sensation of tension. 

 

 

The opening of the film is sensational and doesn’t waste time with boring exposition; it just thrusts you – and the main character – into the story without looking back.  As the film opens we meet Thomas (a solid Dylan O’Brien), who finds himself taken – via a vast underground elevator – to a mysterious forest-like area known as The Glade.  He has no memory of who he is, where he came from, or, for that matter, who put him on the elevator in the first place.  The area he arrives at is overseen by a group of adolescent boys, many of whom have been living there for several years.  The society that these kids have created for themselves seems both primitive, but ultimately catering to their needs for security and survival.  For the most part, this one-with-nature existence that these lads have created for themselves has relative law, order, and harmony. 

But…wait for it…there’s a catch.  As Thomas acclimatizes himself to his new surroundings he very quickly realizes that the tree-dwelling civilization he’s been placed in is actually surrounded by an impossibly large, impossibly elaborate, and impossible-to-escape from maze that seems to have a life of its own (it changes and morphs into different patterns on a daily basis).  The Glade leaders have sent highly skilled and courageous “maze runners” into the maze in an attempt to map it and hopefully find an escape.  Alas, their efforts have been stymied for years not only by the constantly evolving nature of the maze, but also by the fact that biomechanical spider-like monsters called Grievers patrol the maze and kill runners without hesitation.  Thomas, of course, becomes obsessed with becoming a maze runner, finding an escape route, and regaining his memory, and he’s given the impetus to do just that when a girl – the only one ever – arrives at The Glade, Teresa (Kayla Scodelario), who is revealed to not only be the last person ever to arrive there, but also one with ties to Thomas’ past. 

THE MAZE RUNNER does an uncommonly good job of establishing its highly intriguing premise right from the get-go.  Wes Ball creates an immersive look to the semi-decaying natural Glade environments that’s surrounded by the foreboding and ominous industrial look and feel of the maze walls that surrounds it.  With a scant budget of just $35 million, Ball conjures up a fairly impressive balance between CG effects and practical location shooting that’s remarkably seamless.  He also has a strong affinity for staging action with clarity and a sense of relatable geography during the film’s many breakneck chase sequences set within the maze, during which time those freakishly ugly Grievers creepily stalk the Glade’s runners.  A film set within a labyrinth would, at face value, seem like a visual challenge for most directors, but Wall manages to generate great visual interest and variety in the film to keep viewers guessing and on the edge of their seats. 

Wall also garners fine performances from most of his actors as well.  Dylan O’Brien’s character is essentially an audience conduit into this strange and peculiar world, and he sells his character’s fidgety anxiety, puzzlement, and ultimately extreme curiosity rather well.  Will Poulter (who appears as the alpha male leader of The Glade’s boys) is a million miles removed from his meek and meager role in WE'RE THE MILLERS; even though he plays the obligatory role of the bullying loose cannon of the group, he does so with an unpredictable and intimidating edge.  The film falters on the character front with Teresa, and even though I’m thankful that the script wisely avoided using her as a potential love interest for multiple male characters (such an overused convention in YA fiction), she’s nonetheless an underwritten plot device that exists primarily to drive the story forward towards its climax. 

And as for that climax?  I’m not sure where to begin.  I was so entirely enthralled with just about everything in THE MAZE RUNNER leading up to it as it posed – without directly answering – many of the film’s tantalizing questions: Who’s Thomas?  Where did he come from?  Who built the maze and for what purposes?  Is The Glade a twisted social experiment?  And what the hell does W.C.K.D. stand for?  Let’s just say – and without engaging in wanton spoilers – that THE MAZE RUNNER kind of rushes through its final act, desperately trying to deal with its story’s beguiling mysteries while, at the same time, posing more frustrating queries at audience members.  The big reveal of the real origin of the maze and Glade society doesn't seem as twisted and shocking as the film thinks it is, which also has the negative side effect of feeling like it exists to establish an inevitable sequel instead of giving the film a proper sense of closure with a hint of a sequel.  Sigh. 

Still, I enjoyed enough of THE MAZE RUNNER to recommend it, especially during an age in which we are overrun by so many tired, forgettable, and disposable YA post-apocalyptic thrillers that fail to make an impression.  For the most part, it’s an well crafted plot and premise-centered sci-fi film that genuinely – despite its lackluster denouement – leaves you wanting to see just where its story will lead next.  Ball's film also gets by considerably on its thanklessly riveting action sequences, stalwart performances, and the manner that it builds our compulsion to journey into its premise to discover its secrets.  You can’t say that about a lot of past YA films…but in regards to this one…you can. 

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