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It’s not a prison. It’s a test.

Movie

The Maze Runner
(2014)

 

The first hour of The Maze Runner provides a set-up as arresting and intriguing as that of any mainstream movie unhindered by the label “Young Adult”. It is less overtly constricted by pandering to a niche (teen) audience, while clearly influenced by the likes of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Vincenzo Natali’s Cube. Unfortunately, it is also afflicted by the curse of the JJ Abrams, or more precisely Damon Lindelof. What makes it so involving cannot possible pay off.

Nevertheless, there’s good reason many greeted this as a surprising breath of fresh air in the glutted Young Adult marketplace. There were few expectations, and debut director Wes Ball does a determined job of making the movie pacey and involving on a restricted budget. Perhaps crucially, its issues are the precise opposite of 2014’s other YA franchise-starter, Divergent. There, anyone could see the set-up didn’t make a blind bit of sense from reading a brief synopsis but was quite entertaining if you could move past it. In contrast, The Maze Runner is all about the mystery. So, by the time you realise it’s very nearly as silly as that picture, it’s almost over and pushing for its sequel (it surely no coincidence that of the three credited writers, T S Nowlin, Grant Pierce Myers and Noah Oppenheim, one of them, Oppenheim, is working on one of the second Divergent sequel).

Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) wakes up in an elevator with no memory, en route for a grassy clearing in maze complex where other boys are imprisoned.  Led by the longest resident Alby (Aml Ameen) and Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) they have formed into a regimented micro-society with individually delegated set tasks. Thomas is most intrigued by the role of the maze runners, who leave the area in the morning when the entrance to the maze opens and return in the evening just before it closes.

Thomas’ arrival appears to set off ructions within the delicately maintained order of the Glade (the grassy clearing), personified by the aggression of Galley (Will Poulter), but further demonstrated when Thomas takes it upon himself to enter the maze to help Minho (Ki Hong Lee) and a wounded Alby. Just as they return (no one has ever survived a night in the maze, thanks to vicious bioelectronics guardians known as Grievers), a girl arrives by the elevator (Teresa, played by Kaya Scodelario), further upsetting the applecart.

The Maze Runner is designed as a puzzle, not just geographically but also in terms of the whys and wherefores of the place and its subjects. Thomas dreams of experiments undertaken on him, and he and Teresa remember each other’s names. The danger of this sort of deal is the one that faced Lost, just in more truncated form. The possibilities go unsatisfied by the reveal. So it is that by the time the credits roll, The Maze Runner has crossed from potentially the best YA to a merely so-so appetiser for a take-it-or-leave-it movie series. Although, since it made a lot more than Divergent for a fraction of the cost, its continuation is a no-brainer.

Newt goes to the trouble of laying out a series of rules and place markers (no one has ever gone beyond the walls, no one has ever survived a night etc.) that effectively identify Thomas as an ever popular chosen one when he surmounts them. There are also cryptic elements (“It’s called the changing” “WICKED is Good”) that are much less evocative once explained, and it’s understandable questions don’t go away.

Like, why no one can scale the walls when there are clearly vines going right the way up at least some of them (this is surely the most repeated complaint about the obvious plot holes).  Coming in a close second is that, for a movie with this title, there is very little in the way of exploring the mazes. There was a surely lot of potential for constantly changing structures and losing one’s way in the labyrinth, but it doesn’t happen. It’s all a bit linear, alas.

Mainly, though, The Maze Runner has been lacerated for affronting viewer intelligence. The reveal concerning what this is all about makes no sense. The kids are immune to a virus that decimated humanity (turning them into zombies of the 28 Days Later variety) after a solar flare devastated the Earth. They were corralled into the maze as a test, to map out their brains’ responses to the challenges within, and what makes them different. And so provide hope of a cure. Okay…

It’s all a bit tenuous, isn’t it? The classic problem of a viable concept with little means to thrash it into something satisfying and useable. The subjects are both vital and wholly expendable (project leader Ava, Patricia Clarkson, expresses surprise that so many survived). However you cut it, such as making excuses based on other tests being conducted prior to entering the maze, this precise scenario is entirely batty. The criteria and objectives won’t be clarified because nothing would satisfyingly explain them. Presumably this is also a very broad-spectrum test as, aside from the three or four runners, the lads do sweet FA aside from a spot of gardening.

There are a few decent reveals; that Thomas and Teresa were actually testers (Gally was right to be suspicious; it’s notable that his approach of safety first, not bucking the system and rule and order, is the closest the movie comes to reaching for a critical subtext beyond its mystery box), the fake-out of the terrorist attack on the facility. Others – Galley miraculously appearing having traversed the maze solo – bear as little scrutiny as the project goal. For a YA movie this is also impressively un-sentimental in killing off sympathetic characters or in unpleasant ways. The Grievers are familiar and generic, but Ball handles the maze sequences with energy and flair; it’s a shame there aren’t more tight scrapes as the close shaves are gripping when they come.

The young cast also give a good showing. The Maze Runner’s failings are purely material-based. The trio of writers should probably have forsaken more of James Dashner’s novel than they did. Dashner still seems to be banging the series out (his fifth is due next year), so perhaps he’ll digest some of the criticisms and come up with something coherent in time for finale. At least with this number of novels, provided audiences don’t get bored and the series is curtailed, there should be no need for Fox to follow the route of every other YA and split the last entry in to two. Although, the same could have also been said of Harry Potter.

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