The Maze Runner is the latest film to be based on a young adult book — specifically one set in a dystopian future or alternate reality — that strives to reach the heights of success scaled by The Hunger Games. The last few years have been littered with the corpses of a number of failed adaptations (The Mortal Instruments, The Host, etc.) that not only bombed at the box office but were simply wretched movies to actually sit through. The Maze Runner, thankfully, is not one of those. Dark, mostly gripping and generally well-acted, with a plot that supplies a lot more suspense and mystery than many of its ilk, it is an entertaining and mostly solid sci-fi outing that is hobbled towards the end by problems endemic to its genre.
Based on James Dashner’s novel, the movie opens in some sort of cage/elevator in which a young man played by Dylan O’Brien (Teen Wolf) abruptly awakens as the box rattles to an unknown destination above. His memories wiped, the boy — who eventually recalls that his name is Thomas — finds himself in the Glade, a pastoral enclave populated by young men of varying ages, all of whom arrived there the same way, one every 30 days. The Glade is bordered by enormous, unclimbable walls, two of which open every morning and allow access to the Maze, the massive labyrinth that surrounds the Glade, until sundown when the walls slam shut again.
The boys are trapped there, but have established a relatively benign Lord of the Flies-like community and a chain of command under the leadership of Alby (the excellent Aml Ameen). An elite group called Maze Runners send two young men into the Maze every day to explore, map and hopefully solve it without getting attacked by its biomechanical sentinels known as Grievers. Inevitably — and perhaps predictably — Thomas is drawn to the Maze and becomes obsessed with delving into its mysteries. His memories begin to return as well, along with visions of some sort of reseach facility and a girl (Kaya Scodelario) — the same girl who is shortly transported to the Glade with a note indicating that there will be no further deliveries.
Who is Thomas? Why have he and all the other boys been deposited in the Glade? Why is a girl introduced into the group? Who controls the Maze and is there a way out of it? These are the questions that The Maze Runner sets up, and it is those mysteries that keep the film moving forward in a way that many passive-aggressive YA adaptations fail to do. The screws are tightened from within and without as the forces behind the Maze arbitrarily make the boys’ situation more desperate, and as self-styled Glade enforcer Gally (a malevolent Will Poulter) grows more suspicious of Thomas and lets his own paranoia drive him to open rebellion.
The story starts to run out of steam in the film’s final stretch, just as some of its questions are being answered, only because The Maze Runner cannot work its way past the same problem that befalls so many in its genre: it has to set up a sequel and therefore cannot complete the story in a way that is both satisfying and dramatically coherent. Dashner has written two follow-up books that 20th Century Fox would love to turn into films as well, and the result is that The Maze Runner’s final 20 minutes or so retroactively make the rest of the movie feel like one long trailer.
That’s the movie’s biggest flaw; its second largest is its male and female leads. Luckily bolstered by strong supporting turns from Ameen, Poulter and others, O’Brien is nevetheless the kind of bland, pre-fab teen idol sort we’ve come to expect from endless MTV and CW fare. It’s not that he’s bad; he works hard to bring intensity to his role. It’s just that his intensity is like a low-wattage lamp compared to the brighter-burning bulbs of some of his fellow cast members. Scoledario, on the other hand, may be a fine actress but doesn’t get any opportunity to prove it. You could completely remove her from this film with almost no repercussions — the movie avoids any discussion, by the way, of how a small village of adolescent boys relieve the tension of what must be raging hormones — and makes her character seem like she was just thrown in because she’ll eventually do something in the sequel.
Amazingly, The Maze Runner still holds up despite those issues, thanks to its fantastic design and look (the Maze itself is a marvelous piece of work) and the steady, confident direction of first-timer Wes Ball. Brought to Hollywood’s attention by his short film Ruin, Ball seems completely comfortable working with an expansive sci-fi setting and integrating the right amount of visual effects. He knows how to keep the story moving as well, which many directors who come from the same kind of art and visual effects background aren’t able to do. It’s likely that the narrative’s flaws stem more from the source material than any failing on Ball’s part.
If The Maze Runner is a hit, I suppose we’ll eventually find out if the next two installments in Dashner’s series can flesh out the wobbly narrative threads left dangling and muddled at the end of this film. In that way, watching this exciting and yet ultimately frustrating movie is like running the Maze itself. If the film is successful enough to rise above the YA pack and keep the series going, perhaps our next trip through the labyrinth will provide a clearer and better sense of the way forward.
The Maze Runner opens Friday (September 19).