Some of my favorite stories are those made up of little more than an effective, simple concept, a core cast of enjoyable characters, and a stimulating conflict. It’s the kind of set-up that both horror and indie romances do well with, though science fiction generally works on a grander scale. Wes Ball’s directorial debut, The Maze Runner, takes a small, locked-room mystery and weaves it into the fabric of a much larger narrative, though it’s one that you’ll have to wait until the sequel for. Because yes, we’re in the big wild world of YA dystopian novel adaptations, and these kinds of tales come in packs of three or more.
I say that with only the slightest sense of cynicism, as I enjoyed much of what The Maze Runner has to offer, and am surprisingly excited to see author James Dashner’s successive novels unfold on the big screen. Though there are problems to be found—the dream sequences are particularly awful—the smooth and tension-laced pacing makes spur-of-the-moment arguments seem irrelevant from one scene to the next. There’s always something better waiting around the corner here.
The Maze Runner immediately introduces audiences to our earnest leader Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), who wakes up inside of a metal box and is welcomed harshly into his temporary new home, The Glade. A large chunk of land surrounded on all sides by hulking stone walls, The Glade is filled with teenage boys who, like Thomas, arrived in the box one day with nary a fleeting memory of their former lives. The exposition comes quick and easy as we tour the land and meet the Gladers right along with Thomas.
The head honcho here is Alby (Aml Ameen), he’s been there the longest, and everyone looks up to him. His second in command is Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), who thinks with his head more than his heart. Chuck (Blake Cooper) was the newest recruit before Thomas showed up, and he’s also the youngest and most “aw shucks” of everyone. If there is an antagonist in this flick, it’s Gally (Will Poulter), a boy who smothers his fear with blinded rage once things start going haywire. Other characters, like Frypan (Dexter Darden) and Winston (Alexander Flores), are always around the main crew and get a few lines in, but everyone is basically just sharing screen time with the monstrosity that surrounds them.
The Glade sits in the center of a massive Maze, which opens itself up to the boys every day, closing every night. One dares not get caught beyond the walls at night, for the Maze isn’t just a hard-to-decipher labyrinth, it seems to be alive and brimming with giant insect-like creatures with appendages tailor-made for stabbing. The Gladers call them Grievers, and though they inspire heightened fear among the group, the strong-willed Minho (Ki Hong Lee) still leads the Runners out there every day. It’s their duty to memorize and record the maze’s movements in hopes of finding a way out. This job is also Thomas’ destiny, whose curiosity is both a blessing and a curse. (It was particularly groanworthy when Alby tells Thomas, “You’re different. You’re…curious.”)
The first chunk of The Maze Runner is a nice blend of machismo-infused camaraderie and confounded puzzlement. No one just comes out and tells Thomas everything that’s happening, because no one told them that way. Newt doesn’t even tell Thomas that he’s about to consume Glade-conceived moonshine in one scene, though the mason jar should have been a clue. The entire film is basically one big learning experience about the Maze and its secrets, and that approach to storytelling never overstays its welcome, even though occasional direct communication would have been much more effective in ensuring everyone’s safety.
Things really take a turn for the worse—and better, for audiences—once Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) arrives in the box, along with an ominous message. Though Teresa is underwritten—many of her character traits from the novel have been excised—she is still a catalyst, turning even more people against Thomas as he grows ever more concerned with finding a way to escape. And his hero’s journey is complete with some harrowing Maze trips and a few Griever meet-and-greets that made me wonder why Hollywood doesn’t do more creature features. The CGI and the handheld camerawork were hard to take at times, but there was a genuine feeling of danger and dread every time the Gladers were in trouble.
Fans of the novel won’t see too many shifts from the narrative here, minus the Thomas/Teresa mindreading and some timeline issues. It is a bit jarring to hear the characters saying “shit” a lot, after having to get accustomed to the faux-swear word “shuck” in the novels. All in all, though, Wes Ball’s The Maze Runner tells all the parts of the story it needs to in order to keep its audience engaged. And the dialogue and ideas here are incredibly surface-level and compact—just like in the book—so it’s easy to let the adventure be the guide here.
The eventual path to the ending is going to be a serious deal breaker for some, once it’s discovered that answers are never really answers in this world. The Maze Runner has already drawn countless comparisons to The Hunger Games, but to me it’s more like the sequel, particularly in its third act. On the flip side, this pic gloriously avoids anything resembling a romantic subplot—this is a group of guys who don’t remember any females they’ve ever met, so there’s no comparison to horny prisoners here. The closest it gets is when Chuck declares that girls are cool.
This is far from the last YA novel-adapted future we’ll be experiencing in theaters over the next few years, but it thankfully puts a spark back into the sub-genre that abhorrent dreck like Divergent and Vampire Academy threatened to extinguish completely. A bit too stereotypical for its own good, The Maze Runner nonetheless held me rapt with every movement of the Maze’s walls and delivered more suspense than anything old Katniss has gone through. The Maze is a nice place to get trapped in, but I wouldn’t want to live there.