Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before: In a
rigidly structured dystopian future, one plucky teenager dares to think for
himself, shake up the status quo and start a revolution–or, at least the
beginning of a trilogy.
Such is the stuff of “The Maze Runner,” which hews pretty
closely to the YA-novel formula that’s reliably produced so many hugely
successful film adaptations in recent years. And, indeed, director Wes Ball’s
film is based on the best seller by James Dashner. It features a similar structure, hits some recognizable beats and includes some
character types that will seem pretty familiar to anyone who’s seen the “Hunger
Games” films, or “Divergent,” or “The Giver.”
But its roots stretch back further to classic, allegorical
literature about frightening utopias, especially “Lord of the Flies.” While
there’s no Piggy and no conch, the teenage boys who populate this eerily
idyllic society have formed their own leadership and their own rules, and they
think they’ve achieved a peaceful sense of order.
That is, until Thomas shows up. Actually, he doesn’t even
know his name is Thomas at first. Dylan O’Brien (MTV’s “Teen Wolf”), who
resembles a young Rob Lowe, plays the confused young man. At the film’s start,
he finds himself rising quickly in a big, rickety freight elevator that’s also
loaded with supplies. (The film’s sound design is quite startling and
effective; it puts you on edge from the earliest moments.)
When he arrives at the top, he steps out into a sprawling,
grassy square known as the Glade, which is surrounded on all sides by imposing
and impossibly high concrete walls. Dozens of handsome, young men of various
ethnicities wearing various shades of the same long-sleeved shirt work together
cooperatively in the sunshine–building huts, gardening, cooking, etc. It’s
like the world’s hottest, grungiest Benetton ad.
Like the others before him, Thomas has no memory of who he
is and no idea how he got there. But as the newest arrival to the Glade, he is
dubbed a “greenie” and duly hazed until he can prove his worth to the key
figures he meets. The charismatic Alby (Aml Ameen), who was the first to
arrive, is the de facto leader. Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) is his impish
right-hand man. Gally (Will Poulter) is the muscular bully. Chuck (Blake
Cooper) is the wisecracking chubby kid.
And Minho (Ki Hong Lee) is the head of the runners:
fleet-footed boys who dare to enter an opening in the giant walls and explore
the maze that lies behind them. It’s vast and treacherous but at least
navigable in the daytime; at night, it closes up, changes paths and devours
anyone foolish enough to remain trapped. No one has survived it overnight and
no one has exited the other side.
Naturally, Thomas is intrigued.
And what’s intriguing about “The Maze Runner”–for a long
time, at least–is the way it tells us a story we think we’ve heard countless
times before but with a refreshingly different tone and degree of detail. Ball, whose
background is in visual effects, doesn’t overload his feature debut with a lot
of glossy, high-tech imagery. Not for a while, anyway. Much of the film’s charm
comes from its rough-hewn aesthetic–a tactile nature that’s both industrial
and organic–and the way it takes its time vividly establishing an environment.
When Thomas eventually does enter the maze–no spoiler
there, folks, it’s in the title–it produces some moments that are truly
harrowing and filled with non-stop, near-death peril. (This is a super-violent
PG-13, but then again, the young readers who are the target for these books
know what’s in store for them.) The beasts who dwell there are incessant,
ravenous and very, very fast. I won’t divulge what they are, but I’ll only say
that they’re extremely cool looking and scary as hell.
All of which brings us to the ending. Man, that ending. What
a misstep. It’s so incredibly frustrating, because everything was going so well
until then. The third act brings some mystery with the arrival of the first
girl ever sent up in the elevator: a strong-willed brunette named Teresa (Kaya
Scodelario), who seems to know Thomas already.
But The Big Reveal of what happened to these kids, who
trapped them in this place and what their purpose is ends up being pretty over-the-top
even for sci-fi. A lot happens in the film’s final minutes to the extent that
it makes “The Maze Runner” feel like it has several conclusions. Some of them
feature some unintentional hilarity when shock and fear probably were in the
game plan. And they squander the formidable and versatile Patricia Clarkson in
only a few moments as the chilly, nefarious mastermind of the maze.
Presumably, she’ll figure more prominently in the sequel.
Because, oh yes, it’s coming. You will not have to wander around looking for it