Who built the maze? How did they construct it? Where was it built, and why can it rearrange itself each night? These are some of the questions I asked (and had answered) during a screening of Wes Ball’s The Maze Runner, a good sign that the central conceit and snaking mythology put forth by James Dashner’s source novel had reeled me in. If The Maze Runner starts a viable franchise – as is hinted at in the final minutes of this series-launching chapter – I’m on board with finding out what happens next. Can there be a bigger compliment?
The Maze Runner can be broken down as William Golding’s Lord of the Flies by way of Lindelof and Cuse’s Lost. It analyzes the psychological reactions of a gang of young men dropped, mysteriously, into the center of a massive maze. And it chips away at the larger questions – the “who” and the “why” – while letting noteworthy cast members Dylan O’Brien, Blake Cooper, Kaya Scodelario (as the lone girl in the group) and smoldering Will Poulter shoulder the requisite drama that enhances the science-fiction at play.
O’Brien plays Thomas, an energetically restless teen who starts the movie by waking up in the elevator car that will bring him to The Glade – a commune established by Alby (Aml Ameen) and the boys who’ve been dropped in the Maze. Thomas immediately realizes there are distinct personalities established in the Glade. Gally (Poulter) is the bully who likes to toss his influence around. Chuck (Cooper) is the meek sidekick who instantly assumes his position at Thomas’ side. But Thomas wants to join an elite group known as The Runners, who embark each day into the Maze to see if they can find a way out.
Part of me feels bad for a movie like The Maze Runner, simply for where it lands on the production cycle. Because it reaches theaters in the wake of movies like Divergent, The Giver, Mortal Instruments or the standard-bearer – The Hunger Games -- audiences are going to automatically dismiss it as a rip off. And while there are similar elements (particularly a washed-out, post-decimation setting and a hero told he is “not like the others”), The Maze Runner should be the type of project that is praised for its authenticity, and its sci-fi execution.
Teenagers who didn’t watch Lost and haven’t yet devoured Golding’s seminal novel of male-bonding (and eventual male distrust) should find plenty to digest in the Maze Runner’s survival story. The film peels back its unsettling mysteries with a welcome pace. Dylan O’Brien – best known for MTV’s Teen Wolf series – fits the mold of a traditional hero, dashing and kinetic with the proper disposition to oppose Poulter’s brash, arrogant nemesis. These characters aren’t breaking stereotypes. And The Maze Runner falls victim to a few predictabilities. When a key character is told “We’re all getting out of here, I promise,” for example, you can bet your last YA dollar that they aren’t.
I understand audiences who want to wave the white flag at the notion of having to learn the specifications of another sci-fi, teen lit universe. It’s getting difficult to keep your Mockingjay districts separated from your Divergent factions, and The Maze Runner downloads The Glade, Runners, Greavers, The Changing and more into our ever-developing glossary of cinematic sci-fi terms. But director Wes Ball makes the Maze a daunting and emotionless adversary to our young heroes, and the effects work in this introductory chapter convinced me to want the next installment of this potential franchise to unfold on screen, and soon.