The Maze Runner (2014) / Adventure-Sci Fi
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements and intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, including some disturbing images
Running Time: 113 min.
Cast: Dylan O'Brien, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Will Poulter, Kaya Scodelario, Aml Ameen, Ki Hong Lee, Blake Cooper, Dexter Darden, Patricia Clarkson
Director: Wes Ball
Screenplay: Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers, T.S. Nowlin (based on the novel by James Dashner)
Review published September 20, 2014
YA adaptations are really beginning to make me Y-A-W-N.
Yet another attempt to mine from a series of sci-fi dystopia Young Adult novels in order to try to replicate the box office success of The Hunger Games, this Wes Ball-directed first chapter in a proposed series of movies, based on the first of the trilogy from James Dashner, feels a bit too familiar to generate the kind of distinction to separate it from an already overcrowded pack of film releases.
The film's cold open shows an amnesiac teenager (O'Brien, The Internship) being lifted up in an elevator-cage into a strange environment enclosed by four towering stone walls called The Glade by its all teen male inhabitants. After remembering his name is Thomas, this new guy finds he is the latest in a string of such teens to show up in this fashion, with one new involuntary recruit added every month. The Gladers tell him that in order to survive, he needs to follow their rules, which includes not going into the one large exit that leads to a complicated maze that their 'runners', the gents who've been commissioned to try to map as much as they can of the maze before the doorway closes at night and everyone inside dies after the vicious half-spider, half-mech entities knows as the Grievers come out and give them a fatal sting.
Of course, Thomas will end up not following the rules, and he'll become a runner, and probably become a sort of hero to this group of young men who've resolved to not go all out in finding a way out of their predicament -- they just want to live.
The overly posturing cast of actors is varied, but the characters aren't exactly compelling, and given that nearly everyone is suffering from heavy bouts of amnesia, there's not much development to cling to. Star Dylan O'Brien, who looks like a mash-up of Paul Walker and Logan Lerman, is mostly cast on looks over charisma, which can be said for most of the rest of the main players. For having spent three years in a place without such amenities as running water (or even a bathing pool), this is a quite tidy bunch, which is just one of many lapses in truly making an already farfetched premise seem like someone behind it gave it more than just a superficial thought beyond the plot and design.
Wes Ball, directing his first feature film, does a pretty nice job with the visuals and the CG-infused action, which shouldn't be a surprise given that his prior film credits lie as a visual effects designer. This film's biggest assets are its special effects, set design and use of surround sound, and from a technical standpoint, it's a treat for the ears, even if we've grown accustomed to eye-popping visual elements in higher-budgeted blockbusters over the last several years.
If I had to sum up the main story, it's a mix of TV's "LOST" and William Golding's "Lord of the Flies", with a few dashes of Ender's Game sprinkled in for good measure. Or, it's the equivalent of an entire first season of an intriguing TV series winnowed down to a two-hour recap. Much of the plot is of the Gladers telling Thomas that they've tried everything he could possibly think of, so don't bother rehashing it, followed by Thomas trying something pretty basic they actually had never thought of and pushing them further in his three days there on his own than they had gotten in three years there as a collective brain trust. Suspension of disbelief in this regard is asking a bit much from the three credited screenwriters, Oppenheim, Myers, and Nowlin (all first-timers).
The Maze Runner may seem a bit generic by modern standards, but it is fairly effective most of the way, eventually leading to a certain intrigue as to what possible explanation there could be for this weird world of mazes and monsters. It's watchable up until the final act, during which whatever tenuous hold it has for many viewers will start to unravel in a hurry. It's not the explanation that's ridiculous, though it is very preposterous in it's own way; it's every decision made afterward, as what was once a passably entertaining premise devolves into silly gimmicks and supposedly emotional elements that stay flat-lined due to the prior emphasis on CG over characters.
The Maze Runner is a bit like the maze that comprises the main obstacle of the film -- ostensibly complex and full of intrigue, but anyone with intelligence will find it surprisingly easy to navigate and can see right through most of its upcoming twists and turns, regardless of what reported dangers are lying just around the corner. Viewers will likely be disappointed that, like so many recent would-be young adult franchises, the cliffhanger ending isn't so much an exit from one maze as it is an entrance into another.
©2014 Vince Leo