Even if the ending leaves you hanging, The Maze Runner is driven by an engine of constant suspense, according to this guest review from Brian Ronaghan.
The Maze Runner
Release date: September 19, 2014 (USA)
Director: Wes Ball
Stars: Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Will Poulter
Running time: 113 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13
Guest review by Brian Ronaghan (@brianronaghan)
For those in a rush: it’s Logan’s Run meets The Hunger Games meets Lord of the Flies. If this trifecta sounds enticing to you, you’ll have a lot of fun with The Maze Runner. If The Hunger Games is the only one you recognize, you should enjoy this suspenseful mystery even more since it’ll seem quite original to you. (Also, go read Lord of the Flies and see Logan’s Run! Lastly, if this combination sounds like yet another factory-produced, conceptually-recycled YA adventure designed to be a pre-ordained franchise, well… YES, you’re correct, but if you give it a chance you might have fun anyway.
The film begins with that all-too-familiar trope: unfamiliarity. Our protagonist awakes with no memory, unaware of even his name. He’s rising in an old-fashioned lift and soon arrives in a large open field surrounded by towering, unscalable walls that make the place a prison. The exposition comes quickly from a gaggle of teenage boys: This place is called the Glade. Each of the boys arrived exactly as our protagonist did. A new amnesiac kid arrives every 30 days along with whatever supplies the group needs. They each soon remember their names (but nothing else) and quickly find their place in the group. And oh yeah: they’ve been stuck here for three years.
Aside from simply surviving in their de facto prison, the main goal of the “Gladers” is to explore and document the gargantuan maze that lies beyond the walls. Every morning a passage to the maze opens up, only to close at sunset. The fastest and bravest of the boys run out into the maze every day, hoping against hope to find an escape route and get back before the doors close. It’s quickly made clear that once the doors close, deadly mechanical monsters called “Grievers” go on patrol, killing anyone left outside the Glade. As is repeated several times: no one’s ever survived a night in the maze.
Soon, our protagonist remembers his name (Thomas), and per his namesake begins doubting everything around him. He’s unsatisfied with his role doing busy work and immediately begins questioning the leader Alby’s skin-deep explanations about why they’re stuck there. Alby makes some surprisingly compelling arguments for why the status quo must stand. Usually a film like this makes the status quo patently wrong and the protagonist’s new way obviously better, but The Maze Runner holds back judgment for longer than usual.
Inevitably things come to a head, though, as Alby is inadvertently dragged into the maze and injured right before the doors are about to close. The “runners” are all indisposed and everyone else is forbidden from entering. Showing his true rebel colors, Thomas dashes in at the last minute to help the fallen Alby, leaving the two of them and a runner trapped in the maze. Predictably, through Thomas’s ingenuity they survive a night in the maze, defying the odds and throwing the entire group into chaos. From here, the story takes off.
The cast is a solid group of young actors who work well considering every single one of their characters is has total amnesia. Dylan O’Brien (MTV’S Teen Wolf) plays the lead Thomas without vanity and anchors the film solidly. Aml Ameen (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) as the leader Alby is quite good, as are Thomas Brodie-Sangster (HBO’s Game of Thrones) and Ki Hong Lee (ABC Family’s The Nine Lives of Chloe King). Blake Cooper (USA’s Necessary Roughness) plays the youngest of the boys – Chuck – well enough, but his character becomes key emotionally, and I’d have loved to have seen a bit more from him. The biggest complaint I have cast-wise is the work by Will Poulter (Son of Rambow) as Gally. His character’s overwritten as the guy who’s dead set against Thomas. While the writing falls down re: making him an identifiable antagonist, Poulter’s performance doesn’t help.
Kaya Scodelario performs admirably as the newly appeared first girl of the group, Teresa, but her role is also shakily written. My first instinct was to give the filmmakers kudos for keeping Teresa from devolving into a token romantic interest for Thomas. However, the fact that there’s only one girl present in the Glade raises a lot of red flags, as does her character’s paper-thin development. A big question arises once the first girl arrives: why haven’t there been others? Why isn’t the Glade populated 50/50? The boys don’t seem to ask this question, nor does the film ever answer it. The Maze Runner barely pays lip service to the fact that Teresa is a woman or how her gender affects the group. While the film explores the darker realities of a group of teenage boys outside society (i.e. sometimes they kill each other), it does little with how the same teenage boys might react upon their first interaction with a girl.
However, it’s hard to say how the film acquits itself re: feminism for two reasons. One reason is I’m an idiot and a man and have no qualifications to talk about how gender should be addressed in popular entertainment. The second is the film’s ending. If you can call it an ending.
To be clear: The Maze Runner plays with suspense and mystery very well. From the first frame, we want know the answers to the grand mystery of who or what put the boys in the Glade and why. But the engine of the film is the constant suspense of the boys trying to survive and get out of the Glade and the maze. This struggle for survival pulls us briskly through the story as we (secondarily) hope for answers. In that way, The Maze Runner is wonderfully unpretentious. Unlike others of its ilk (Twilight, Beautiful Creatures, Divergent, those other six I can’t remember), this film assumes absolutely no knowledge of the source material. Its story is so basic and elemental that it doesn’t have that empty aftertaste of other YA franchises, which often leave you feeling like you missed something if you didn’t read the books.
But that ending! Here, The Maze Runner falls victim to a pitfall of its genre: it “ends” with a “to be continued.” After planting a question deeply in the very concept of the film, the ending gives us answers that are only more confounding. No, that’s giving it too much credit. We cannot fairly say that the ending gives any true answers to the central mystery. I don’t want to spoil anything, but prepare to be frustrated that you can’t see the next film immediately.
Up until the ending, I found The Maze Runner intriguing, fast-paced and surprisingly intelligent for its genre. The ending took a lot away from my affection for it, but I can’t bring myself to say “don’t see it.” It was fun, even if frustrating. I suppose that just like the film, this review can’t truly end. I can’t give you a yes or no recommendation until I see the sure-to-come sequels and learn exactly where Thomas is “Maze-Running” to. So – I guess – check back in a few years.