Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
How can newly released young-adult dystopias set themselves apart from the rest of the pack? The Maze Runner doesn’t do anything particularly exciting or innovative past its admittedly promising concept, but the male-driven narrative will undoubtedly draw in a wider audience than many of the recent adaptations of popular teenage novels. The film picks up in an immediately claustrophobic and stressful moment: Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) wakes up in a steel-caged elevator that’s climbing at a rapid pace. He doesn’t remember anything about himself and is surrounded by various barrels and crates, labelled with the letters “WCKD.” When the doors open above him, the sun is shining, faces greet him, and he runs for his life when given the chance. Only then does he notice that there is no escape: surrounding him and the other inhabitants are impossibly high walls that form a maze around them. The maze changes, the gates only open for a limited time, and many boys have been trapped or killed within its walls.
Thomas has a curiosity that the others do not share. Alby (Aml Ameen), the group’s leader, tries to test his ability as a “runner,” a term used for the people that attempt to map out the maze while the gates are open. Thomas wants to find the quickest way to escape and doesn’t understand how everyone could be okay with not remembering anything about their past. One of these boys accepting of their circumstances is Gally (Will Poulter), someone who doesn’t take kindly to Thomas’s unwanted exploring and the mistrust and displeasure he brings the group. This leads to more people being attacked by the nightmarish Grievers, unseen creatures that inhabit the maze, while a mysterious girl (Kaya Scodelario) arrives in the monthly elevator delivery with a strange note that changes the game altogether. Why have all of these boys been trapped in the affectionately titled “The Glade,” and is there any chance at escape?
That question is a fascinating one, primarily because the film builds tension through the mystery of its visuals. The maze is enthralling and portrayed terrifyingly. There’s a telling scene as a character gets stung by a Griever, returning to camp but posing a threat to everyone there. As a society, they decide that the person must be banished; the only way that can happen, then, is by forcing him into the maze as the gates close. No one has ever survived a night, and that won’t happen here. It’s a harrowing exploration of adolescents as they handle adult situations, even if the story starts to grow repetitive. What grows particularly frustrating as well is the growth of clichés as the story develops further. The final half hour is chock full of every predictable element of young adult novels, whether that be a young character as a martyr of innocence or an enigmatic leader that might be good but also could totally be evil. It’s just too simple and formulaic.
The conclusion lost me. It’s incredibly difficult to translate dense novels to film, especially when they are surrounded by mystery that might need characterizations to pop but cannot be delivered through dialogue. There are probably two or three films worth of material that are revealed in the increasingly drawn out conclusion, as the characters find out the answer behind the maze, amongst many other things. The characters are thin due to their lack of knowledge about themselves so the actors do not have much to work with; that lends itself to bland, interchangeable performances, outside of O’Brien in the lead. He’s a strong presence that provides a young anchor for the film. There are structural problems, certainly, most of which go unnoticed since the film begs questions throughout. Yet the lack of conclusion surrounding many central problems leaves the story too open for a sequel. The Maze Runner is a promising, ambitious film, but it’s also frustrating and incomprehensibly dense.
Grade: ★★★ (out of 5)