Another month, another tale about the special-est kid in the world who immediately earns the respect of his peers while throwing their world into disarray and proving himself the smartest and most capable of everyone! This time, it’s The Maze Runner, based on the supposedly popular young adult series by James Dashner.
Directed by visual effects artist Wes Ball (who does a fair job), The Maze Runner stars MTV’s Teen Wolf star Jacob O’Brien as Thomas. Having absolutely no memory of who he is nor where he comes from, Thomas wakes up in a glade of CW-quality young adult males all with the same problem – they have no memory other than their first names (it comes back to them after a couple of days), and they’re trapped in a giant enclosure where the only way out is an unsolvable maze (with monsters!) from which no one who enters comes back alive.
As expected, Thomas is The Chosen One. He has dreams of his life before, immediately figures out problems that others have been trying years to solve, and becomes the hero of the camp within days. Even after the similarly amnesia-ridden Teresa (played by a remarkably Kristen Stewart-looking Kaya Scodelario), the first girl in the history of The Glade, shows up calling out his name before passing out, it doesn’t take long before everyone’s ready to follow him again. And of course, when it comes time to actually solving the maze, Thomas pulls it off in about a week after his arrival.
One of the movie’s biggest problems is that the premise – people with no memory must figure out a way to escape a treacherous place – cannot sustain the running time of even a relatively short 1 hour 53 minutes. Rod Serling accomplished a similar premise masterfully in The Twilight Zone classic episode, “Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” but that only ran for 30 minutes with commercials. With this movie, we spend a lot of time on exposition for a premise that’s very easy to absorb, and even more time repeating and clarifying that information – this film does not even trust the audience enough to make simple intuitive leaps. Yet instead of upping the stakes or playing up the claustrophobic-puzzle-within-a-puzzle inherent in the story (as the superb film Cube did), The Maze Runner seems content to be redundant and stick steadfastly to its initial idea, presumably so the sequels have some place to go.
There is an interesting concept within The Maze Runner, but it is disappointingly over by the time the movie begins. With many of the Glade-ians there for years, the more fascinating story is how their society was built, how the rules developed, and how they overcame the initial Lord of the Flies scenario. Unfortunately, when we meet them, everything is settled and pretty much all of the characters are pleasant and ready for the noble sacrifice. Even as Thomas (and Teresa) disrupts the society they’ve worked hard to maintain, the majority of the gang seems instantly cool with them. The film doesn’t even touch on the potentially unsettling implications of a lone girl among a gang of teenagers/20-somethings who have never seen a girl in their lives.
Of course, a lack of internal conflict need not necessarily be a bad thing if the film bothered to give the characters personalities or us a chance to really understand their society, but instead almost every conversation revolves around The Maze. Moreover, because all of the characters have overcome their initial concerns (and have no memory of who they were so they can’t talk about what they miss about their lives from before), it also causes the vast majority of them to lack any discernible features beyond their physical characteristics. There’s the black guy (Alby, Aml Ameen), the Asian guy (Minho, Ki Hong Lee), the girl (Teresa), and the plucky sidekick (Chuck, Blake Cooper – who looks like a mix of Chunk from The Goonies and Samwise Gangee from The Lord of the Rings trilogy. That might sound mean, but tell me I’m wrong). The only real stand-out among the cast is dissenting voice Gally (Will Poulter, We’re the Millers) who gives the film a much needed dose of (unintentional) humor every time he “COME ONs!” to his neighbors praying at the altar of Thomas.
With the actual issues that Thomas presents to the society given the shaft, the movie ends up having no real depth beyond “run a maze and survive.” We get some answers at the very end, but even those are vague, immediately discredited, or meant as a set up for more questions because it’s obvious the movie cares mostly for its sequel(s). After all, it essentially ends with a character saying “Stay tuned for part 2.”
The Verdict: 2 out of 5
The Maze Runner is not offensively bad, but it never becomes more than boring either. Its lack of charismatic characters and an inability to do anything interesting with its premise makes it yet another in a long line of forgettable young adult adaptations that are more focused on establishing a franchise than producing a good standalone movie.