The Maze Runner is not a good movie, but it wins points for omitting much of what makes typical teen films excruciating.
There’s no love triangle and no lengthy flashbacks of elders barfing up loads of mythology and exposition. It may be sad to consider this an accomplishment, but after years (years!) of having our standards systematically lowered by a ceaseless tsunami of Young Adult adaptations, The Maze Runner’s spry pace is noticeable and appreciated.
The Maze Runner has a sly way of seeming propulsive, even if not much happens. We enter the world of the film alongside a befuddled boy stricken with amnesia, placed in a world filled with other amnesiacs. As such, no one really knows what the hell they’re doing, which is a surprisingly effective storytelling trick. Our hero is Thomas, played by the 23-year-old Dylan O’Brien. He’s the newest “greenie” in “the Glade,” and arrives with boxes of farming supplies.
In the Glade, under the enlightened leadership of the strong Alby (Aml Ameen), everyone is put to work according to their skills. Crops grow, shelter is built, and a rainbow coalition of fit-looking boys seems to enjoy their time in what is ostensibly a prison. Surrounding them, though, are enormous cement walls with one opening. It closes in the evening and the interior re-arranges itself like a puzzle.
For years, a group of the kids (the runners) have been charging in to the maze to try and hunt for a way out, but if they don’t come back in time they’re doomed. No one has ever survived a night because the “Grievers”, who we eventually realize are nasty cyborg spiders, will come and get them.
The social structure in the Glade is complex. There are factions, and opposite Alby is Gally, a reactionary without much of a vision for the future. Gally, played by Will Poulter (who has a young Jerry O’Connell thing going) is an interesting villain. Thomas’s gang eventually includes Teresa (Kaya Scodelario, who can’t decide if she’s going with an American accent or not) whose sole purpose in this film is to look fetching in a blue Henley. One surmises she has more to do in the sequels.
Eventually, Thomas charges into the maze and outsmarts the Grievers. They look a little silly, but anything spider-like gets audiences gasping, especially when they are piercing and slicing young people to their doom. (Hats off to the Maze Runner – it isn’t afraid to violently kill kids. It pushes the envelope of PG-13.) Before this can happen, though, Thomas uses his wits to find out just a tiny bit about his past and why they heck he and his mates are in this predicament in the first place.
All of the performances (particularly Ameen’s) are top-notch. The film-making, unfortunately, leaves much to be desired. The score is horrendous, and the sound design hasn’t an ounce of subtlety. The overall production design – including the opening titles – looks a lot more like TV than a feature film. Were it not for the expansion into the larger world in the last few minutes, I’d compare the movie to a season one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which Commander Riker loses his memory but retains his leadership skills (and dashing good looks) on some crazy prison planet. That’s not necessarily a bad bit of entertainment, but maybe not something worth heading to the cinema for.
The ending scenes elicited laughter at the screening I attended, yet the “whoa” factor is high. Maybe it’s just because the secrets of The Maze Runner are so half-baked, but if I was told that part two was about to begin I’d have stayed in my seat. Not entirely because I cared about the characters, but more out of sincere curiosity to see where this peculiar story was running next.