'The Maze Runner''s intriguing premise is never given the proper room to breathe
The Maze Runner 20th Century Fox
Director: Wes Ball
Screenplay: Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers and T.S. Nowlin, based on the novel by James Dashner
Starring: Dylan O'Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Will Poulter, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Aml Ameen, Ki Hong Lee and Blake Cooper
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 53 minutes
September 19, 2014
(out of four)
Look, I've got nothing against explanations. Explain away, for all I care. If you want all your questions answered, fine. But when you hear some of us whine about the tendency to spell everything out, or the prevailing aversion to ambiguity, you can blame movies like The Maze Runner.
Here is a movie entirely built on the absence of understanding, and yet it still frustratingly relies on lazy revelations and cheap resolutions. There's a fine line between unraveling a mystery and tearing down the very thing that made your story interesting, and The Maze Runner crosses it.
And it's not necessarily what gets revealed or how much, but how it gets revealed. Things may have been on thin ice over the first 100 minutes, but it completely lost me in its final scenes, when it launched into speech mode to give away everything it wasn't clever enough to reveal more organically. The movie is about a group of amnesiac teenagers surviving in a glade surrounded by a seemingly unsolvable maze, with no idea who they really are, who put them there, what it all means, or what the outside world is like. But then along comes Captain Exposition, showing up for a gratuitous information dump. Here's everything you just did, and here's how you got there, and here's why, and here's what the plan is next. What grey area remains is only in place to set up the sequels.
It's like finishing one level of a video game, getting to the end and being told exactly why everything that just happened happened, and then advancing on to the next level. Based on the film's structure and certain action sequences that take place within the maze, I'm guessing video games played a fairly heavy influence in the film's (and/or original novel's) creation, but that's no excuse for cheap exposition. We start out not knowing anything, and by the end we know too much. The blank slate we begin with is intriguing in and of itself. And while discovering answers is inevitable - and presumably part of the fun - there's only so much we need to know before it starts to undermine the very premise. It's like being around someone who shares too much. At a certain point, just get away from me.
In addition to the video-game influence, The Maze Runner quite deliberately falls into a category with the likes of Lord of the Flies, Battle Royale, LOST, or even Alex Garland's The Beach (and subsequent film adaptation), all stories of isolation and survival among a self-governed group of outcasts. Like most of those examples (and plenty more), the outcasts in this case are there unwittingly, contending against forces almost entirely out of their control. They've been placed there, in the Glade, surrounded by an intricate stone maze that closes its doors at sundown each night and shelters mysterious and deadly creatures known as Grievers, which typically only come out at night.
The Glade is made up entirely of boys, all within a general range of 12-19 years old. For three years this has been going on - once a month, a new boy arrives in the Box (a sort of underground elevator shaft), along with a month's worth of supplies. The Gladers grow and cook their own food, build their own shelter, make their own rules. They each have their assigned jobs, the most important of which is Runner. The best and most physically able of the bunch become Runners, traveling through the maze all day, every day, memorizing it and searching (perhaps in vain) for an exit. The biggest hiccup is that the maze changes every night, according to some as-yet-indiscernible pattern.
The film begins in the Box, with our hero Thomas (Dylan O'Brien), arriving - like all the others once did - in the Glade with no memory of who he is or how he got there. But once he arrives, the life the rest of the Gladers have grown accustomed to begins to change. A couple of the others are instantly suspicious of him. One of them even attacks him. And just a day after Thomas shows up, the Glade gets another new arrival - this time, strangely, a girl (Kaya Scodelario) named Teresa.
And not just a girl, but a girl who brings with her a written warning: "She's the last one. Ever."
And not just a girl with a warning, but a girl who somehow seems to know who Thomas is.
Thomas recognizes her, too, though the details are fuzzy. Fragments of memory - faces, phrases - come to him in dreams. Regardless of their history together, she's the type who makes an impression, with the dark, wavy hair and penetrating, uncertain eyes that remind you of a girl you knew in college. Scodelario's presence is remarkable, even if she's saddled with an under-written role. Though she's seems to be the key to the Glade's secrets, the film predictably spends more time on whatever it can turn into an action scene. Which is especially unfortunate because Wes Ball and editor Dan Zimmerman do such a sloppy job with it. Almost all of the action sequences take place at night, with the maze or the Glade lit by moonlight, and the film often taking on an almost monochromatic grey hue - which works great until Ball and Zimmerman start rapidly cutting their shots together, making the action unintelligible in such dark lighting.
There's some fine work being done elsewhere; the design of the Grievers - and the way they move, and the way they sound - lends the film a palpable sense of danger, and the young cast is largely up to the (somewhat limited) task. Based on James Dashner's not-particularly-well-written novel (I'm being kind), The Maze Runner has a lot of cool concepts to play around with, and just enough visceral impact to improve upon the clumsy source material. But it ultimately falters where so many others have, and that is in its failure to figure out when and how to play its hand. The exposition-happy climax may necessarily set up the next entry in the franchise, but it also makes everything that came before it seem a lot less interesting in retrospect.