Because just leisurely strolling through the maze isn’t an option.
Hollywood just keeps on cranking out expensive adaptations of bestselling young adult novels, each one in the hopes of catching some of that sweet Harry Potter / Hunger Games profit. Next up on the teen-centric chopping block is The Maze Runner, based on the book by James Dashner.
Thomas (Dylan O’Brien, MTV’s Teen Wolf) wakes up with no memory inside an elevator. It takes him to the Glade, a forested area surrounded on all sides by giant stone walls. He’s there with several other young men his age, who also have no memories of their lives before this place. Every morning, the walls open to reveal a maze inside. Thomas soon becomes a runner, tasked with exploring the maze and all its dangers, in hopes that somewhere inside is a way home.
What we have here is a premise movie, in that the whole thing is built around a singular premise—there’s a big scary maze. Everything is about setting up the importance of the maze, so we in the audience are captivated by its mere presence. It’s frustrating, then, how the filmmakers spend so much time making this setting mysterious by creating mystery when there’s no need for mystery. Pieces of exposition that could be dealt with in the first few minutes are instead doled out bit by bit in an effort to be mysterious. Thomas is told “Welcome to the Glade,” and “That’s the maze,” in ominous tones, only to get explanations of what these things mean in later scenes. All this probably makes for a cool trailer, but it’s frustrating in the film, because there’s no reason why Thomas’s fellow gladers can’t take thirty seconds to tell him what’s going on instead of dragging it out by acting mysterious over time. I’m aware that screenwriters are against frontloading a movie with exposition, but there are better ways to get important plot/setting details across with stringing viewers along with hints for no narrative reason.
Fortunately, the movie gets better as it goes along. It takes a while to get inside the maze, but once we do, it’s a stunning creation. Somehow, the maze interiors manage to be both spacious and claustrophobic at the same time. There’s actually not a lot of maze running in The Maze Runner, but that’s OK, because you look forward to each trip inside the maze, rather than the maze overstaying its welcome. Creatures called Grievers lurk inside the maze, and their design picks and chooses from various CGI monsters of recent movies past. Again, that’s OK, because the maze is real “monster” here. Like the shark in Jaws, the maze is an omnipresent force that always looms in the distance.
Dylan O’Brien brings a lot of intensity to Thomas, playing him with one desire—to escape. This singular drive informs everything Thomas does, and O’Brien makes that consistent. There’s an interesting ethical debate buried deep somewhere in The Maze Runner, in that the gladers have learned to survive by establishing and following certain rules, while Thomas breaks those rules in service of finding new ways to escape. Is it worth risking the peace and safety of others in the name of freedom, or it better to concentrate on survival and not put others’ lives on the line? Questions like these are the source of tension between Thomas and the other gladers, and I wonder if there’s an alternate version of The Maze Runner where Thomas is the villain, disrupting the established order and bringing chaos into the others’ existence. I almost wanted to the movie to delve deeper into these debates, and make them more of a grey area, even if it would have been at the expense of the action.
A big plot point is supposed to be the arrival of a lone girl, Teresa (Kaya Scodelario, Skins), into the Glade. She gets one great scene where she stands up to all the dudes, but other than that, it feels like she’s only in the movie because there just has to be a female character. The novel establishes a strong emotional connection between Thomas and Teresa, something definitely lost in the film. For other characters, Aml Ameen (The Butler) makes a good voice of reason as the Glades’ leader, Will Poulter (We’re The Millers) has a great icy glare as Thomas’s chief rival, and Ki Hong Lee (The Nine Lives of Chloe King) does the “action hero” thing excellently as a fellow maze runner. Another standout among the cast is Blake Cooper (Prosper), who takes the stock comic relief sidekick character of Chuck and infuses him with a lot of heart.
Then there’s the ending, or, rather, the lack of one. With this based on a series of books and a sequel already announced, it’s no spoiler to say the movie sets up part two. Rather than do this with an end-of-credits tag, though, they’ve gone full cliffhanger, similar to The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug or The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. The movie says to audiences, “We’re not done. We’re in this for the multi-movie long haul.” Viewers who are not deeply invested in the world of The Maze Runner might walk away from this ending feeling disappointed in that the story simply doesn’t end, but merely pauses until the next movie.
These big-budget movies are made with HD in mind, and the 2.40/1080p HD transfer on Fox’s The Maze Runner (Blu-ray) sparkles with rich colors, natural flesh tones, and vibrant detail in each shot. The lossless 7.1 DTS-HD audio is stellar as well, especially with a number of atmospheric effects out in the woods, and with the creepy sounds of the Greivers on the approach. The disc treats fans with a ton of bonus features. There’s a commentary with director Wes Ball and co-writer T.S. Nowlin, deleted scenes with optional commentary, a lengthy behind-the-scenes documentary, a shorter doc about the Chuck character, a gag reel, a visual effects demo reel, Ball’s short film “Ruin,” still galleries, and storyboards. Additionally, there’s a DVD copy, a digital download, and virtual game currency and an exclusive playable character for The Maze Runner’s mobile game.
If all that weren’t enough, there’s also a 24-page The Maze Runner comic book, written by Ball and Nowlin, with art by Marcus To. It contains two prequel stories that don’t add much to the overall story, but add some “color” to the overall world this takes place in. To’s artwork does a good job of matching the movie’s visual style, and he captures a nice sense of movement in the running scenes.
The Maze Runner is a mixed bag. It has some interesting ideas and some cool action, but the story can be frustrating at times, so it’s not the film it could have been.