Despite its photogenic cast and the fact that it’s adapted from a bestselling YA novel, The Maze Runner couldn’t be more different than recent teen-targeted fare – and that’s exactly why it works so well.
More Lord of the Flies than Hunger Games, this gripping franchise hopeful is unexpectedly dark and dangerous, as well as bracing in the brutality of its violence. Instead of shoehorning in the type of romance ostensibly required for a film targeting the YA demographic, it keeps the focus squarely on its genuinely intriguing central mystery. And perhaps best of all, director Wes Ball knows that real suspense is always generated by great actors, not just flashy effects. Accordingly, the helmer trusts his cast of up-and-comers to shine, and luckily for The Maze Runner, all of them, particularly star Dylan O’Brien, do just that.
From the film’s opening seconds, it’s clear that The Maze Runner isn’t messing around. We first meet Thomas (O’Brien) in a shadowy elevator ascending up into the unknown with terrifying force. Where he came from, where he’s going and even who he is are three questions to which Thomas has no answer. Because of that conundrum, O’Brien’s immediate ability to hold the screen and Ball’s energetic work behind the camera, the scene pulls you right in.
The elevator stops, a hatch opens, and Thomas is greeted from above by a group of unfamiliar young men who, like him, lack all memory of their past lives. Only their names remain. After being brusquely pulled from the elevator, Thomas finds himself surrounded by a terrifyingly foreign landscape called the Glade. A woodland area with lush forests and an open field, the Glade is at the center of a massive stone maze.
What lies beyond the maze is another mystery – the towering, ivy-adorned walls around the Glade are broken by only one tantalizing entrance into the labyrinth, which opens each morning and closes by nightfall. No one who has ventured into the maze has ever found an exit, and those who don’t make it back before the entrance closes fall prey to monstrous creatures known as Grievers (after the horrific shrieking sounds that accompany their nightly hunts). Out of the Gladers, only the runners are permitted to go into the maze – the risk of death on the other side is too great for more than a few to handle.
That’s a lot of set-up, but the nimble script from Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers and T.S. Nowlin (adapting James Dashner’s book) keeps things moving. Severely messy and disjointed plotting has plagued most YA adaptations over the past few years, so it’s relieving to report that’s not the case with The Maze Runner. The clarity of purpose that the director and writers brought to the project works wonders for its overall impact. And though some may balk at the script’s lack of development for more minor Gladers, it was the right move to emphasis story over character, given the extraordinarily absorbing source material.
Still even better than the film’s story, which takes a fascinating (and, of course, sequel-priming) turn in its final third, is Ball’s direction. The Maze Runner is packed with heart-stopping action, and the first-time director handles each scene with uncommon style and intelligence. A former visual effects artist, he’s not afraid to employ some absolutely stellar FX creations (the death-dealing Grievers are nightmarish to behold, and younger viewers won’t be forgetting them any time soon), but he also gives The Maze Runner a refreshingly lo-fi feel.
Ball also handles the tone incredibly well, ensuring that the bonds between the Gladers seem realistic while never forgetting the menace and terror of their situation. In fact, The Maze Runner may be the scariest YA adaptation in years, especially with many of the teen characters dying in shockingly brutal and gory ways. Essentially, though, their deaths never feel cheap or exploitative, and Ball fully communicates the barbarity of their sticky ends. In doing so, the helmer strikes an enjoyable balance between exhilarating action-adventure and Resident Evil-tinged survival horror.
None of it would work without fine performances, and the young cast here is filled with pleasant surprises. O’Brien, star of MTV’s Teen Wolf, proves himself a highly capable and dynamic lead. As Alby, the charismatic leader of the Gladers, Aml Ameen is perhaps the greatest find, commanding his every scene, while We’re the Millers star Will Poulter shows a darker side playing the inflexible Gally. Also terrific are Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Alby’s calm and collected right hand man Newt, Ki Hong Lee as runner Minho, and Blake Cooper as Chuck, the youngest and most vulnerable member of the group. All three infuse their portrayals with relatable emotion and charm.
The only flat note is Kaya Scodelario as Teresa, a mysterious girl who shows up in the elevator just as life in the Glade goes from bad to worse. The actress, so good on British series Skins, isn’t given much of anything to do, and that feels like a missed opportunity. Her introduction in this installment will hopefully pay off in future films, because the actress is an incredible talent, but she barely makes an impression this time around. Whether that’s a consequence of the filmmakers not knowing how to handle a female character outside of a romantic entanglement is something we can debate at a later point, but it’s certainly a disappointment.
Still, outside of the script’s treatment of Teresa and some other slightly ham-fisted twists in the film’s final third which I won’t spoil here, The Maze Runner is really remarkably good. Visually, it’s one of the most engaging YA adaptations to hit theaters in quite some time, and the lead actors are all at the top of their game. Add in an invigorating sense of darkness, first-class direction and an applaudably bold conclusion, and what’s left is, in my mind, the most thrilling, ambitious and entertaining dystopian adventure since the first Hunger Games.
I won’t say it’s amazing, both because that would be an unforgivable pun and because it’s not quite there, but The Maze Runner is both a highly accomplished thriller on its own terms and a breathtaking start to what should be one hell of a series. I’m eagerly awaiting the next installment.