REVIEW: The Maze Runner [2014]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 113 minutes | Release Date: September 19th, 2014 (USA)
Studio: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Director(s): Wes Ball
Writer(s): Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers & T.S. Nowlin / James Dashner (novel)

“Wicked is good”

There’s really no better way to start The Maze Runner than Wes Ball‘s opening. I’ve not read James Dashner‘s novels and probably knew less than the trailer foretold since it’s been so long since I last saw it. So watching the pitch-black screen stare at me while scrapping metal creaked until a scared boy as disoriented as I gets illuminated was brilliant. He and we enter this crazy situation together—running for our lives, being introduced to our new family, and realizing everything that came before this moment no longer exists. Because just as we’re in the dark and in need of exposition, so too is Thomas (Dylan O’Brien). He doesn’t even know his name is Thomas for a few more minutes, but it’s all the ‘creators’ let him remember.

Thankfully Alby (Aml Ameen) arrives to give the lay of the land. His rules are simple: pull your weight, don’t hurt your fellow “Gladers” who’ve all been brought—one each month for three years—the same way, and never go past the entrance of the mammoth stone wall enclosing their small square of greenery now called home. Well, you could call it prison too if you’d like considering the only way out is through that same gate and into the elaborate, nightly-changing maze only a handful of the fastest and strongest traverse each day to figure out an escape. Inside those twists and turns are monsters coined “Grievers”, creatures no one has ever lived to describe. As every “Runner” knows, anyone left inside once the gate closes at nightfall belongs to the maze.

So it’s unsurprising that everyone pretty much sticks to their ‘greater good’ job and choose to hold the Runners in high esteem for their bravery if only because they don’t have to risk their lives within the unknown. At least that’s what everyone did before Thomas was delivered via the monthly elevator supply box. He is different from the start—curious, headstrong, smart, and impatient. He respects Alby’s authority, doesn’t quite understand Gally’s (Will Poulter) mistrust and constant desire to hold true to the status quo, and would do anything to enter the maze and try his hand at solving it. With each night’s dreams giving him glimpses of the past and each day showing an escalation of danger the Gladers aren’t prepared for, it becomes very apparent that Thomas could be their only hope at survival.

It’s old school versus new school with allusions to Lord of the Flies as the adventure’s suspense ratchets up to lock us inside amongst the Grievers, introduce a deadly poison, and inexplicably add a girl (Kaya Scodelario‘s Teresa) to the all boys club. Tensions increase, Thomas’ confidence and thusly his power grows along with them, and all hell eventually breaks loose. And just like The Hunger Games and Divergent before it, young children are sent to slaughter—possibly more here than those other trilogy starters combined—and simultaneously positioned to be the world’s salvation. More than those films, however, I kept thinking of “Prison Break” and its high concept’s inevitable solution only breeding more trouble for the victors. With a little Cabin in the Woods sci-fi added in, The Maze Runner proves an effective thrill ride.

Not only that, though, it’s also an intelligent YA mirage of pure deflection to steep us into the universe and get to know the characters before the next two installments elaborate on plot. While this ensures the ending comes off rushed and on-the-nose with overly-simplified explanations where subtlety would have excelled, don’t think everything doesn’t serve its purpose. Not only do we find ourselves rallying around Thomas like Minho (Ki Hong Lee), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and Chuck (Blake Cooper) despite all being in the maze for years, we also understand the Stockholm Syndrome setting in for Gally and a handful of others. After all, no one can deny that life inside fabricated freedom is better than certain death. What Gally doesn’t get is that such a life is far from living.

The acting is superb across the board with O’Brien leading the charge as a confused young man thrust into the spotlight of a leadership position simply because what he’s doing stirs hope. We believe it when he says he doesn’t know what to do next and yet we follow him anyway as he ensures stagnancy is lost from the boys’ vocabulary. Brodie-Sangster and Poulter respectively provide the friend and enemy of the human conflict occurring beyond the need to beat the maze as Scodelario joins the fray as a mere pawn to the story with potential for a much bigger role in the sequel. The scene-stealer, however, is Ameen as Alby. Possessing a maturity and pragmatism only someone who has seen the worst can have, his emotional depth is immense—courageous and heartbreaking.

Utilizing three screenwriters to adapt the novel (Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers, and T.S. Nowlin), the action has been distilled wonderfully while the end reveal could have used a much lighter touch. Then again, its heavy-handedness could be Dashner’s fault attempting to set the stage for a second book and needing a quick bit of manipulation to get there. The finale holds a lot of promise and could have potentially ripped the truth of what’s happening wide open, but it takes the easy path instead. Ball makes it look pretty, though—both the futuristic tech and stark coldness of rock against nature. The labyrinth itself becomes a bit of a MacGuffin when all is said and done, but welcomingly so. It, like the film, serves as our entry point. What comes next will make or break the whole.

[1] THE MAZE RUNNER Young men, including Thomas (Dylan O’Brien, center, pointing) trapped at an undisclosed locale, investigate the mysteries of a massive maze. Photo Credit: Ben Rothstein TM and © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved. Not for sale or duplication.
[2] HE MAZE RUNNER (From left) Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), Teresa (Kaya Scoderlario), Minho (Ki Hong Lee), Frypan (Dexter Darden), and Winston (Alex Flores) react to a shocking development in the Glade. Photo Credit: Ben Rothstein TM and © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved. Not for sale or duplication.
[3] THE MAZE RUNNER Minho (Ki Hong Lee, left) and Thomas (Dylan O´Brien, right) devise an escape plan. Ph: Ben Rothstein TM and © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved. Not for sale or duplication.

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