The Maze Runner
Directed by Wes Ball. Starring Dylan O´Brien, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Kaya Scodelario, Will Poulter, Chris Sheffield. Written by T.S. Nowlin, Grant Pierce Myers, Noah Oppenheim, from the novel by James Dashner.
Just another Hunger Games-lite young adult adaptation, or a teenage-skewing episode of The Twilight Zone? The Maze Runner is refreshingly small-scale B-movie that doesn’t bother with the more self-serious aspects of its genre cohorts and instead delivers an engaging little thriller that fully delivers on its Lost-meets-Lord of the Flies premise.
Of course, any sense of closure you were hoping to get by the end should be tempered by the fact that this is a series of young adult novels written by James Dashner; while the finale doesn’t completely drop the ball – I was half-expecting the central question to be left unanswered – by the end we’re still left wanting. But I guess that’s the point, right?
The Maze Runner wastes no time in throwing us into its world, opening with a young man (Dylan O’Brien) waking up in an elevator hurtling upwards, caged next to some kind of snarling creature. When he reaches his destination, he finds himself surrounded by a group of teenage boys peering down at him, in the middle of a forest-like environment surrounded by towering walls.
The rules are quickly established: each of these boys has no memory apart from their name (“it’s the one thing they allow us to keep”), and each month a new ‘greenie’ is sent up from the depths. Our hero is the latest recruit in this mysterious game, and after a little whack on the noggin he recalls his own name: Thomas.
Beyond the walls is a giant maze that the boys have spent the last three years exploring, employing “maze runners” to spend their days racing around and charting the giant labyrinth. They just need to get back before sundown – that’s when the walls close off, and “grievers” – giant organic-mechanical spider-like monsters – are unleashed to prowl the corridors.
Alby (Aml Ameen) was the first boy sent up to the maze, and by default their leader. But as Thomas proves his value to the ragtag band of maze dwellers, and Alby is rendered out of commission, a Lord of the Flies power struggle emerges between Thomas, the gentle Newt (Game of Thrones’ Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and the bullish Gally (We’re the Millers’ Will Poulter).
Later in the film, a female element is introduced in Kristen Stewart clone (or at least, styled to appear that way) Kaya Scodelario, as the mysterious Teresa. Thankfully – and unlike every other young adult adaptation out there – there’s nary a whiff of any kind of romantic subplot. In this installment, anyway.
But the one real failing here is of logic puzzle satisfaction. For a movie about a labyrinthine maze with a complex set of rules, where characters map out every inch of in in search of an exit, the ultimate solution to the riddle is a disappointingly routine action movie climax. Instead of discovering clues and carefully working their way out of the maze, the resolution is a disappointing brute force affair.
Director Wes Ball, making his feature debut, was an odd choice for this big-budget adaptation; better known as a visual artist, he gained some acclaim for his 2011 short Ruin (which you can – and should – check out on YouTube here).
Producers don’t typically take chances on first-time directors with this kind of material, but Ball was undoubtedly the right choice: his displays a surprisingly adept hand at crafting this awe-inspiring environment, heavy on CGI but created at a modest $30 million budget (just compare the visual effects work here to those in, say, the Twilight films, which cost considerably more).
Ball struggles to maintain coherency in the action scenes, however, which typically devolve a senseless sturm-und-drang fury of editing that we struggle to keep up with. They also usually unfold in the darkness of night, further adding to the confusion. Oh well; that kind of thing is all-too-commonplace in contemporary action films.
The Maze Runner has another real asset in young star Dylan O’Brien, who gives a fully-committed performance in the lead and exhibits a true movie-star charisma. We expect to see little more the hot face of the moment in these things, and while O’Brien (best known on TV in Teen Wolf) may be that, he’s also one of the most likable performers to ever grace a young adult adaptation.