First-time feature director Wes Ball landed the gig helming The Maze Runner – an adaptation of the first novel in James Dashner’s YA trilogy – off the back of Ruin, a short film that is essentially just a thrilling chase scene featuring arresting dystopian vistas and intriguing design elements that just hint at a bigger story. Talk about an audition that perfectly matches your job, as that’s pretty much exactly what The Maze Runner is all about. Just with a bigger budget, added teenage boy politics and giant cyborg spiders with overactive salivary glands.
When Dylan O’Brien’s sixteen-year old Thomas awakens, disoriented and completely amnesic, in a rising elevator which then deposits him in an arboreal glade surrounded on all sides by towering walls, it’s an apt introduction for the audience to this mysterious world. For most of the movie to come, he doesn’t know the why’s and who’s of what’s happened to him, and neither do we, which makes for a very compelling mystery. Thomas isn’t alone though; he’s greeted, much to his shrieking and rapidly running away dismay, by a group of young boys who promptly begin the age-old tradition of picking on the new guy.
In between bouts of having his face wrestled into the dirt by antagonistic Gally (Will Poulter) and befriending pudgy fellow “greenie” Chuck (Blake Cooper), Thomas is given a history lesson – stunted as it may be – by group leaders Alby (Aml Ameen) and Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster): All the boys in the Glade had arrived the same way, one per month for the last few years, with no memories of anything before the elevator and no clue as to why they were put there. Some supplies get sent up as well by their invisible jailers, but for the most part, the boys have gone all Bear Grylls and are living off the land quite comfortably. In fact, like some sort of reverse-Lord of the Flies, everything is almost idyllic.
That is except for an opening that appears daily, under a bass line rumble of metal gears and crumbling stone, in one of the towering walls. This foreboding maw leads to a giant maze, which a select group of the boys known as Runners, the strongest and fastest among the Gladers led by Minho (Ki Hong Lee), have been trying to map in order to find a way out of their walled-in existence. But the maze doesn’t play fair. Not only does it reconfigure itself every night, but once the opening closes at nightfall, the monstrous Grievers come out to play. Did I say play? I meant mercilessly hunt down and fillet anybody still trapped in the maze.
What is the point of this shifting maze and it’s beastly guardians? To what end were the boys put here? Even more pressing though, is the question of who is Theresa (Kaya Scodelario), the mysterious girl who showed up in the elevator just two days after Thomas with a cryptic note in her hand and recognition for Thomas on her face? And why, after years of maintaining the status quo, do things suddenly start to go violently wrong the moment this new pair shows up?
The screenplay from Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers and T.S. Nowlin string these mysteries along deliciously, providing just enough hooks to keep you guessing and ample fuel for some internal conflict to develop among the Gladers. The cast of youngsters also all acquit themselves strongly in portraying this escalation of events, even if some of their characters – especially Poulter’s posturing Gally – tend to tick some stereotypical boxes just a tad too easily.
But the real star of the show here is actually Ball, who manages to put together a series of butt-clenching chase sequences in the maze which boast an unexpected intensity that will leave older audiences breathless and may even be too much for the younger crowd to handle. While the level of violence on display is kept almost non-existent, the darkly tense scenes may push at the limits of that PG-13 rating for some. The design of the gargantuan maze – realized through a mix of some solid visual and practical effects – also adds an extra layer of claustrophobia that doesn’t offer any solace for those with easily frayed nerves.
Unfortunately, like most things in life, as adrenalizing as the madcap dash is to get there, once the film hits its final moments and starts pulling back the curtain a bit, things get a bit silly. Without giving away any spoilers, I will just say that the machinations behind the boys’ imprisonment barely make a lick of sense once you think about it. Or maybe it does, and we just don’t know it yet.
That’s because The Maze Runner‘s barreling narrative is hamstrung by the fact that it is most definitely just the first chapter in a much more expansive tale, most of which is still to come. What there is to see now though is a thrilling, suspenseful and surprisingly dark debut film from Wes Ball, one that runs slightly ahead of most of the ever more crowded YA dystopian sci-fi adventure pack.
Last Updated: September 26, 2014