There is a basic formula these days for box office gold and it starts with the written word: write a trilogy of young adult sci-fi novels, wherein an unlikely hero has to rise up and become a beacon of hope to the hopeless in the middle of a dystopian, nigh-totalitarian future where the kid (or kids) has to take down the entire regime. If you can adhere as closely as possible to Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, all the better. Then, sell those film rights to make four films out of your three books (the third book will ALWAYS get split in half for the sake of theatrical returns), make sure the filmmakers cast an alluring up-and-coming young actor in the lead role, then sit back and watch the money start piling up on your desk. While Twilight may have been the catalyst for the overall model, the godfather of these types of films is certainly The Hunger Games, which are exceedingly popular. I’m on record with how much I despised Divergent. The most recent of these is The Maze Runner which I did not have very high hopes for. However, much to my surprise, it’s far and away the best of these movies.
The Maze Runner is based on the first book in James Dashner’s high-concept sci-fi trilogy for young adults in which a teenage boy wakes up to find himself in an amnesiac state in a freight elevator that opens up to a pastureland inhabited by other young men who’ve all arrived the same way, over the course of three years. The pasture is surrounded by impossibly high walls; one portions opens from dawn to dusk every day and allows people (runners they’re called) out into the giant, dangerous maze that changes every day. While many, if not most, of these boys have settled into their survivalist lifestyle (they get supplies and a new recruit, a “Greenie,” every month), our main character is of course not content with this and rallies people to try to escape, leading to a shift in the status quo and a smashing cliffhanger for the next book.
These are, of course, merely the broad strokes. Directed by Wes Ball, who makes his feature directing debut (he comes from the visual effects world), The Maze Runner is actually a very tense, often frightening, and quite engaging film. The central premise is a bit far-fetched, but the film doesn’t attempt to explain the HOWS very much, because frankly they aren’t that important. Dylan O’Brien (of MTV’s Teen Wolf, I’m told by the Internet) plays our hero, Thomas. He’s got a very compelling screen presence and doesn’t act like a plank of wood saying lines the way a lot of the leads of this type of movie do. The role is very physically demanding, and he never makes it look too easy. He’s running for his life with every step and only manages to get out of tight scrapes by being clever, all of which is quite believable.
The balance shifts in the story when Thomas, who is not a runner (the only people designated to go out into the maze), books it through the closing doors to try to help Runner Minho (Ki Hong Lee) with Alby (Aml Ameen), the group’s leader who has fallen victim to a “Griever.” If the runners don’t make it back before the doors shut, it’s pretty much accepted that they will die and never be seen again, because the Grievers are nasty, giant biomechanical scorpions who either completely destroy people or, at best, sting them and give them some sort of 28 Days Later rage virus. Not pretty. Thomas and Minho somehow manage to survive the night, and even kill a Griever, but that changes things even more, with the Great Whomever sending up another person far too soon, a girl this time (Kaya Scodelario), and a note indicating she will be the last one. Thomas wants to escape, but the group’s muscle, Gally (Will Poulter), is positive this will bring about the end of everything.
The big ideas in The Maze Runner work surprisingly well, from the maze itself to the danger therein to the shady conspiracy about why they’re there in the first place. This was certainly, at least in part, inspired by LOST by way of Lord of the Flies, but that connection isn’t driven into the ground and it doesn’t detract. The action beats are incredibly well directed, with handheld being used only when completely necessary and the editing not too frantic as to make the movement incomprehensible. The cast of young people are also all surprisingly great, which I think is helped by a screenplay without too much in the way of hokey, futurey dialogue. They talk like people, even the more sage among them. There also isn’t a forced, starry-eyed romance shoehorned in, which I really appreciated.
There are a few problems I had with it, though. Firstly, while the big ideas and execution are quite good, a lot of the story does follow along the very basic formula everyone is accustomed to from movies like this. The characters all match up as well, including an antagonist emerging from a group of allies, the wise mentor figure, the spiritual leader, the comedic relief/innocent sidekick, the sacrificial lamb(s), and even a mysterious and alluring female presence. This is all by the figurative book.
I also rolled my eyes every time a character told Thomas about a different aspect of the maze by saying “it’s called The ____.” Where they live is called “The Glades;” giant shifting metal slats within the maze is called “The Blades;” the monsters (which no one has ever seen and lived to tell about) are called “The Grievers.” Who calls them that? You do! Don’t act like you got a handbook of helpful terms from somewhere. Just say “we call them the Grievers,” or whatever. Not everything needs a name. It just feels very branded.
Finally, how come everyone has a different haircut? If some of these people have been here for 3 years, how come some people have long hair and some people have neatly coiffed dos? Minho looks like he’s got styling cream in his hair; how the hell did he get that? There should be two hairstyles in this group: long and unkempt or short and unkempt; maybe add bald to that if they just want to shave their head entirely with a machete because that’s what they have.
Those quibbles aside, The Maze Runner is a highly enjoyable, quite scary, sci-fi flick with some really intriguing concepts and a very strong central performance from Dylan O’Brien. While these young adult movies often feel watered down, The Maze Runner doesn’t and overcomes some of its hokier or more formulaic aspects. I’m interested to see the next chapter.