The Maze Runner Review: A Refreshing Change of Pace

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The latest big screen adaptation of a YA-novel strays from typical genre conventions, making for a taut and intriguing thriller.

The opening sequence of The Maze Runner  is surprisingly stark. There’s no title cards that describe an apocalyptic event, or a voice-over narration that explains how society has been re-appropriated into specific subgroups. Instead, we’re thrown right into the action as a young man (Teen Wolf’‘s Dylan O’Brien) awakes in a freight elevator. He doesn’t know how he got there, who he is—his name is Thomas, but he doesn’t remember that until a little while later—or anything about his past. Thomas rises up into a vast expanse of field, surrounded on all sides by sky-high concrete walls. Almost immediately, he’s surrounded by other young boys who are shouting and pulling him out. It’s intense, and a little confusing, but boy is it exciting.

Young Adult fiction has become a goldmine for Hollywood blockbusters, with studios scrambling to find the next box office smash. The interesting thing about this film, however, is that it feels separated from its angst-filled counterparts. The plot doesn’t dwell on a bleak dystopian society, a ruthless political party, or even a steamy love triangle. Instead, it focuses almost entirely on its heroes: lost, scared young kids who are just doing what they can to survive. If anything, The Maze Runner has more in common with Lord of the Flies and Holes than it does with, say, The Hunger Games and Divergent.

Based on James Dashner’s 2009 novel of the same name, the story centers around Thomas as he enters this strange new space called The Glade. Every month, a new boy is sent up in the elevator, with no prior memory of his existence, and forced into this new society. Thomas quickly learns the rules that have been set in place by those here before him, and the jobs that everyone must take to keep things going.

He meets an interesting cast of characters including alpha-male Gally (We’re The Millers‘ Will Porter), the wise Newt (Game of Thrones‘ Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and the very young and impressionable Chuck (Blake Cooper). These boys might be slightly archetypal, but the film allows for some effectively emotional moments, despite everyone’s lack of a backstory.

The boys have made a life for themselves in this patch of earth, even forming a loose caste system in which people get picked for jobs. The most exciting position? A runner. As it turns out, the walls surrounding The Glade open to reveal a vast network of passageways—the maze—that constantly change every night. The runners’ jobs are to scour through it every day, in desperate search for a way out.

After our brief introduction to The Glade, the majority of the film presents an engrossing mystery. Once Thomas gets inside the maze, things really pick up. Terror lurks around every turn with the presence of Grievers—robot-spider hybrids that could, unfortunately, use some work on their CGI. Still, the fear and tension are palpable, with O’Brien making a very capable leading man.

In fact, The Maze Runner is at its best when you don’t fully understand what’s going on. Directed by Wes Ball, the scenes inside the giant labyrinth, and the mounting tension in the fields of The Glade are expertly shot to ensure maximum curiosity. The maze itself, with its gargantuan, ever-changing walls, is a sight to behold. Beyond that, though, there are so many things to ponder. Who is this ominous W.C.K.D. organization whose initials are on all the boys’ supplies? Why does Thomas seem different from the rest of his Glade brethren? What is the significance of his bizarre dreams? When Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), the group’s first girl, arrives in the elevator, the puzzle only reenergizes itself.

The one draw back of this film, however, arrives at the end, when the mystery is all but handed to us on an exposition-heavy silver platter. All the impressive groundwork that was laid out for us in the first two-thirds of the movie is almost ruined by this short, and overly blunt bit of explanation. Anyone who’s read the Maze Runner novel knows that it’s part of a trilogy, so I suppose one could argue that this ending was necessary to set up the sequel that’s slated for next fall. Still, it’s a shame that this barebones story has to succumb to some overly-complex expansion in its final moments. Oh well, at least there’s still no love triangle.

Yet, The Maze Runner is largely successful, chiefly because it feels so original. With new YA-novels being optioned for the screen on what seems like a weekly basis, it’s refreshing to see one that doesn’t feel the need to stick to certain tropes in order to win over the audience. Had the ending been presented with a bit more subtlety, this movie would’ve been a total triumph. Instead, it’s just a strong glimmer of hope for the future of this genre. Perhaps the sequel will be even better. Grade: B+

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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