Thomas (played by the capable Dylan O’Brien) has no clue where he is. He wakes up in a rapidly-ascending elevator to God-knows-where, and he spends half of the ride unconscious and the other half retching through the crosshatched metal of the elevator. When the elevator finally rattles to a halt and light (not the good kind) comes flooding through the top, he finds himself staring up into the grimy faces of dozens of weary-looking teenagers. He has no memory of anything before the elevator right up to hell (weird thing to write), and his name doesn’t even come to him until he’s getting the shit knocked out of him by Gally (a phenomenally grim Will Poulter) a day later. In fact, none of them remember who they were before they were supposedly wiped clean of identity and thrust into the dangerous Maze they were now forced to inhabit. The youngsters co-exist semi-peacefully given the circumstances, but where’s the fun in that? Thomas quickly discovers that he is different, and becomes a symbol of hope and courage to his fellow prisoners. Soon, he becomes a Runner, a strong, fast, arguably suicidal Glader (that’s what the community calls themselves) who traverses the Maze daily in an attempt to find a way out. But when the arrival of Teresa (a wooden Kaya Scodelario) brings more clues that point to Thomas as the cause of their predicament, the community stirs with unrest and chaos ensues.
Before I cut into the meat of the review, I’d better wash my hands and come clean first: It’s been years since I read James Dashner’s Maze Runner trilogy, and I only read them once when they first hit bookshelves. I read through each book quickly and never revisited them. Everything I remember about the flame-choked world he has conjured up now comes from the two hours I spent watching kids do battle with huge, half-mechanical spiders (and each other). That being said, I should probably re-read his books, because Wes Ball’s The Maze Runner is a special movie. Its flaws are few and far between but just as attention-grabbing as those gigantic mechani-spiders (actually called Grievers but I’m having fun here). The plot gets tripped up by its own uneven pace, one of the key players has a subpar actor portraying her, and the ending sloppily ties up various plot threads while loosening others for its sequel, The Scorch Trials. Despite these missteps, it does hold some unbelievable potential for its inevitable sequels. Even more surprisingly, this bleak introduction to an even bleaker premise dabbles with themes and ideas that go far beyond the ‘YA norm’ and becomes something darker, even heavier.
If there’s one thing to praise about The Maze Runner, it’s the impeccable casting. Dylan O’Brien competently and confidently leads a cast that includes Will Poulter of The Chronicles of Narnia fame as the rigid Gally, Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Jojen Reed from Game of Thrones) as Newt, and Ki Hong Lee as the tough, quick-witted Minho. All of the aforementioned actors grow and thrive in their respective roles, and there’s only one cast member who bogs them down. Kaya Scodelario really doesn’t do or add much to the film’s already crowded bunch of key players, despite being an incredibly vital part of the story. As Thomas’s only tether to his past life, she changes the game and becomes one of the most important characters. But man, I wish she had done a better job. There’s so many reasons to love this movie, but she unfortunately isn’t one of them. I’d be remiss if I failed to mention Patricia Clarkson as her brief but chilling appearance as one of the presumed villains of the franchise. She doesn’t do much, but she’s great nonetheless.
The film wisely opts to go the suspense route rather than the action route, favoring pulse-pounding forays into the foreboding Maze over mindless action sequences with no payoff. Indeed, The Maze Runner makes a point to establish itself as a character-driven thriller rather than your dime-a-dozen action flick, treating viewers to lengthy periods of admittedly heavy-handed character development that are occasionally punctuated by fleeting brushes with death or mutiny.
The film doesn’t end without bringing its flaws to the forefront. As it turns out, the character-driven thriller approach works two ways, one good and one not so good. The good, as mentioned above, involves a primary focus on suspense, characters, and emotional resonance with a secondary focus on action and intensity. The bad involves a jarring pace that grinds to a halt just as things are about to really heat up, throwing an anti-climactic final confrontation at viewers before hastily wrapping things up and stuttering in a cartoony voice, “Th-th-th-th-th-at’s all, folks!”
All quibbles and ’40s cartoon references aside, The Maze Runner proves to be a damn fine film. It has its issues, but what amazes me is that it manages to trump many of the tropes that normally define the YA genre. This alone is quite a feat, and makes this exceptional film a worthwhile expenditure of time and money.