Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Director: Wes Ball.
Screenplay: Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers, and T.S. Nowlin. Novel by James Dashner.
Runtime: 113 minutes.
Cast: Dylan O'Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Will Poulter, Thomas Brodie-Sangster.
Trailer: “What happens to them?”
Plot: Thomas wakes up in a caged elevator filled with supplies, rapidly approaching the surface, and with no idea of his own name or why he is there. Discovering himself at the centre of the maze, with many other teenagers, he must navigate the presumably man-made terrors of the labyrinth and find a way for the impromptu community to escape. But doing so requires him to challenge the authority of self-appointed leader Gally, and penetrate the deepest mysteries of the maze.
Review: The Maze Runner is the latest Hollywood Lord of the Flies meets post-apocalytica for tweens; mixing together recognisable elements of those genres, and ensuring that the young men who populate this realm are handsome enough but also non-threatening in that Total Girl cover-boy manner. They are, allowing them to be surrogates for that crush aforementioned tween might otherwise have on a friend’s older brother (sorry for the gendered hetero-normativity here folks, but that’s how Hollywood brutally engineers them). The film does a competent job of building up the mystery of the seemingly man-made maze; although in doing so, it lifts heavily from the playbook of much better sci-fi thrillers like The Cube. Sadly, it uses that excitement for no real purpose – running out of steam in the fourth act, and having nowhere to go except a limp set-up of what is obviously hoped to be a blockbuster franchise. The faux-political message fizzles, leaving audiences with a candy floss experience of a film. The sound of money being hoovered out of patron’s pockets can be heard over the closing credits, as the next instalment rolls into pre-production. I walked away from the film satisfied enough that I had gotten my money’s worth; but not particularly interested in seeing more.
The opening plot owes a lot to the well-trodden path of open mysteries like Lost; launching our protagonist into an already well-established group of boys that he will inevitably find allies among, and clash with the typical teen antagonist (here seemingly played by Channing Tatum Jr.). Our hero Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) is right away given the ‘you’re a wizard, Harry’ vibe as he acts as audience surrogate, and puzzles out the arbitrary rules of the situation into which he has been thrown. In this instance, it is the maze – a labyrinth that opens every morning, closes every evening, and changes shape in between while being patrolled by giant mechanical-organic death spiders. We are shown the consequences of encountering one of these beasts early on; setting the stakes for the later inevitable confrontation. But things begin to change with the arrival of Thomas, drawing the ire of Gally (Will Poulter – the aforementioned Channing Tatum Jr., freckles, jughead cut, furrowed eyebrows, and all) who effectively bullies his way into control of the community and persecutes poor Thomas. Through ingenuity, luck, and persistence Thomas thinks he has found a way out – while Gally insists that things stay the same. The power struggle escalates, until the community of boys is forced to navigate the maze and free themselves.
I should also note another plot oddity, in that an unscheduled elevator ride to the surface also adds Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) to the mix, upsetting the all-boy community, particularly because she seems to know Thomas without prompting and puts the pack of boys at risk of cooties. But other than presciently handing a few MacGuffins to the protagonist at the right time, she plays no meaningful part in the film – presumably because younger male audiences will be more interested in the chest thumping and cool fights, and younger female audiences don’t want their doe-eyed staring at their selected poster boy to be interrupted by some unwelcome competition wandering into shot.
There are many things to be mean about in this otherwise by-the-numbers film – for example, that plenty of hair product seems to be sent up with every supply cache, or that every Lost clone somehow inexplicably finds themselves with a Hurley on their hands because fat, downcast outcast is shorthand for having an emotional core in these stories (and the cardboard leads generally can’t deliver any resonance through their focus-grouped, rubbery smiles). The selection of ethnicities for the community of boys is as careful and diverse as their cookie-cutter physique isn’t. Thomas Brodie-Sangster reprises his role as Jojen from Game of Thrones, as a dispenser of mysterious wisdom and handy exposition. The back story is intentionally sketchy at first, through the magic of amnesia, and doesn’t get any better with much hand waving and no time to explain in the later acts. At one point it is announced that ‘why we are here is not important’ – curious, as I considered that pretty much the most important question of the film. At the conclusion, those seemingly behind the grand conspiracy state ‘they could be the key to everything,’ shamelessly flattering their target audience and playing into the youthful readiness to seize on any specialness about themselves that defines young adult writing as a genre. ‘Time now to begin Phase 2’ they announce, in what has to be the laziest franchise setup ever.
But here’s the curious experience I had while viewing the film. In a packed house, I sat between a group of tween to teen girls, excitedly chattering away and obviously deeply anticipating the film; and a fifty-something man who, when he lazily opened his Jabba the Hutt-like eyes, I was strangely worried would start masturbating (as Nathan For You tells us, a serial problem in family movie theatres). Thankfully he did nothing of the sort; but what it did provide me with, while watching the film, was a spectrum of reactions that could be said to be likely when seeing The Maze Runner. Poor Jabba fell asleep at key points, and during one particularly gruesome action sequence began to snore. The girls to my left, however, spent most of their time hugging their legs in terror and watching with wide, unquestioning eyes. They genuinely seemed to feel for the young, strapping boys on the screen – desperately hoping that their next dream date to the school dance wasn’t going to be impaled by a mechanical spider in the next scene, ruining their chances. I couldn’t care less; but then again, I can’t dance. Yet it was curious to see the magical alchemical formula, refined over so many blockbuster seasons by cynical producers, to be working its spell on such a young and credulous crowd. ‘Why are you touching it? Oh no!’ they cried at points, and ‘no, don’t do it! Ew, gross,’ at others. It was truly a fascinating sight to behold; a cultural equivalent of that giant trash island in the middle of the ocean. Yet it was hard to begrudge this young audience their enchantment; it was a good reminder that films exist to entertain more audiences than the pedantic pricks who run unpopular websites about them. On the level of tween entertainment, The Maze Runner succeeds and then some. It also manages not to be too offensive or dull for the poor adults who have been dragooned into chaperoning them.
I really wonder what is behind these successful formulas for tween films, like The Hunger Games et al (heavily advertised before this session). The appeal to their specialness I get; the barbarity of tribes and impromptu communities with no adults is a stand-in for high school recesses, lunches, and the psychological ruthlessness of kids at that age. But the post-apocalyptic? The feeling of being constantly betrayed by adult authority? That’s what I really wonder about; that seems to be a newer element to stories that have existed since Catcher in the Rye and before. I wonder if it truly is a millennial feeling that their parents have irreversibly fucked up the world; or whether it is simply that slightly older generations are now the directors, producers, scriptwriters of these cultural products and are using their own resentful feelings towards the generation before them to power these narratives. Whatever the answer, it is not to be found in The Maze Runner – which basically does what it says on the packet, and little more.
Rating: Two and a half.