THE MAZE RUNNER (2014)
Starring Dylan O’Brien, Aml Ameen, Ki Hong Lee, Blake Cooper, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Will Poulter, Dexter Darden, Kaya Scodelario, Chris Sheffield, Joe Adler, Alexander Flores, Jacob Latimore, Randall D. Cunningham, Don McManus and Patricia Clarkson.
Screenplay by Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers and T.S. Nowlin.
Directed by Wes Ball.
Distributed by 20th Century Fox. 113 minutes. Rated PG-13.
I can’t decide if it is disheartening or perhaps a positive sign that the writers and readers of young adult literature are so completely jaded about human life. After all, you have to wonder if they see the popularity of tragic post-apocalyptic landscapes as a warning shot against the bow of the teen readers or just a sad inevitability.
Whatever it is, this style has completely made the transition to film, as well. In recent years we have had such future-Lord of the Flies downers as The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Giver and this film raking up at the box office.
As an adult, I have never read any of the series that the other films were based upon, nor was I particularly familiar with James Dashner’s novel series that inspired this film and its inevitable sequels. To be perfectly honest, from the coming attractions trailer, I was expecting something more along the lines of the classic 80s fantasy Labyrinth, though suitably darkened for the new millennium.
Well, The Maze Runner most certainly is darker film. And, honestly, it is not nearly as imaginative a film. Labyrinth had a multitude of creative and fanciful dangers, where this maze seems to be mostly haunted by giant robot scorpion-type creatures called Grievers. These CGI creatures feel like reruns, in fact I can think of at least four fantasy films in recent years that had extremely similar monsters.
Yet, as dystopian fantasies go, The Maze Runner is not bad, an unholy marriage of Labyrinth, Lord of the Flies and 1984. It is not particularly unique, but it has some very interesting parts and some likable characters. It also is able to create a very palpable sense of confusion in its audience as well as its characters.
To the very end of the film, there is no real explanation of why this is all happening. Even when it appears that the characters have figured out why they were trapped in this odd world, it turns out that they are wrong. I assume we will learn more in future films, and eventually we really will have to, but the mystery is intriguing enough to keep things rolling for now.
The story is very simple, and will also feel familiar to fans of the genre. A group of about 30-40 boys are trapped in a small utopian forest and field that is in the very center of a huge and ever-changing maze. The kids don’t know what they are doing there, nor do they have any memory of their life before being there beyond their own names.
The maze is open all day, but at night it is closed because it is patrolled by the giant monster creatures. As long as the boys behave, they are given all they need to survive, as well as a new member of their little troupe monthly.
The latest boy to join is Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), but unlike the others there, he is not willing to give in to the status quo. He starts exploring the maze and kills one of the monsters when trying to escape it. From there on, whoever has imprisoned the boys decide that all bets are off. No more food will be delivered. The maze will not be closed at night. The boys can fen for themselves.
The kids are mostly archetypes – the brave leaders (O’Brien as well as Aml Ameen and Ki Hong Lee), the good and pure but weak younger boy (Blake Cooper), the evil conservative wannabe leader (Will Pouter), the smart and hip helpers (Dexter Darden and Alex Flores) and the token girl (Kaya Scodelario).
The young actors are mostly quite strong, which is important because only two adult characters appear in the film, both in the very end. Despite the fact that they are somewhat stereotyped characters, their relationships feel real, immediate and heartfelt. The young cast deserves cudos for the fine work they do, in particular O’Brien and Cooper find intriguing levels to explore in their relationship.
The maze itself is a quite amazing piece of art design, though truthfully the film does not quite take full advantage of this arresting set piece. Honestly, they do not spend enough time exploring it, letting the audience understand its skewed wonder. Also, no one ever seems to get lost in the maze. Everyone knows exactly how to get to where they want to go every single time, even though the maze is supposedly changing nightly.
But I’m not going to lie, I’m not sure why any of this is happening, and I’m not 100% sure I care. It appears to be the typical dystopian poppycock – the evil corporation conducting nefarious experiments on poor people – but I’d like to believe that there is something more imaginative to it than that.
The Maze Runner is intriguing enough that I am looking forward to the sequel, but if the series doesn’t start clearing up some questions soon I think this may be a maze that lots of people don’t bother to finish.
Jay S. Jacobs