Right now there is no shortage of young adult novels set in futuristic dystopias. Hoping, praying that they have the next Hunger Games, the studios are snatching up these properties hoping they can facilitate another of the f-word: franchise. Rumor has it that pitch meetings for these films goes something like this: “It’s Hunger Games meets…” “Sold!” The latest in this trend is The Maze Runner. Based upon a series of novels by James Dasher, The Maze Runner is the Hunger Games meets Lord of the Flies with a massive concrete maze. It’s a film likely to satisfy the younger fans of the books, but leaving those unfamiliar with the books wanting more.
Awakening on a mysterious elevator, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) finds himself in a society of teen males. All memories of their past lives have been erased, all they remember are their names. Once a month over the past 3 years, a care package of supplies is brought with a new teen. Living in a large green field they call the Glade, the teens have established their own brand of order, putting the chaos of the dark days behind them. On the edges of the Glade is a massive concrete maze that opens and closes like clockwork, changing its layout nightly. Their leader Alby (Ami Ameen) has established a class system where there are those who build and cook, and then there are the runners, the group who enters the maze, attempting to map it out. But nobody can stay overnight in the maze as it’s patrolled by Grievers, biomechanical alien-like creatures that carry with them a deadly disease.
One night, the runners have trouble getting out in time and Alby has been stung. Thomas races in to assist Minho (Ki Hong Lee), who is carrying Alby, but the walls shut and they’re trapped within. Through his determined spirit, Thomas kills a Griever and the trio is able to survive a night within the maze. These events irk Gally (Will Poulter), a tough hothead, and are soon followed by the arrival of Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), the only girl to arrive at the Glade. In her hand is a note that reads, “She’s the last one ever.” Soon, the well-established order is broken and they all must escape the maze before death comes for them all.
What may be engrossing on the page comes across as plodding and achingly familiar on the screen. Each of the characters are the broad archetypes that say exactly what you expect to them to say and act exactly how you think they’d act. There’s nothing in any of these characters that is remotely surprising. Making matters worse, the film makes Thomas “the Chosen One”, an infinitely tired character trend in recent cinema. “You’re not like the others,” Alby blandly tells Thomas. He might as well just be quoting The Lego Movie: “You are the most talented, most interesting, and most extraordinary person in the universe.”
The film might have been able to coast by with its bland characters had it told an engrossing story, but the film doesn’t even tell a story, it tells part of a story. Since this is the first of a planned trilogy, the film is lackadaisical with its pacing, scenes dragged out to pad the running time. More frustrating, the film is concerned with a mystery surrounding who is behind placing these teens on the Glade and why, except it never answers any of these questions. The film concludes with a wait for the sequel ending, leaving the audience with as many questions as it entered with. It’s the kind of frustrating franchise-building installment that focuses on future installments more than telling a standalone story.
Directing his first feature, Wes Ball shows signs of competent direction – shots are framed well and the action isn’t too choppy or chaotic – but the film’s script, credited to Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers, and T.S. Nowlin drags down the moments of competence with groan-inducing dialogue. “What if we were sent here for a reason?” asks one character, as if people have their memories erased before being dumped off in a field by accident. And the film seems determined to avoid some of the more interesting aspects of its concept: the all-teen civilization is remarkably civilized, the growing pains of their society happening well in the past. When the lone female is introduced to their society, they just accept it. I refuse to believe that a group of secluded, sexually frustrated teenagers aren’t going to do horrible things.
The Maze Runner is a film with its sights set on future installments, forgetting that it has to give us a reason to care about the next installment. None of its young actors embarrass themselves, nor do they avail themselves. Had The Maze Runner been about a young a delivery boy who must deliver ears of corn to houses before a certain deadline or face certain death, the film would’ve been infinitely more interesting than the one on the screen. As it is, The Maze Runner isn’t a complete film, it’s just the first chapter.