I really wanted to like The Maze Runner more than the film allowed me to. In terms of just about everything, I like the idea of it far more than the massively popular Hunger Games movies. And when it’s at its best, I think it’s considerably better than those, but it is unfortunately not always at its best. I don’t object to the fact that it spends a good deal of time detailing the world of the film. I expected that and don’t really see any way around it, especially with the target audience in mind. I’m mostly OK with the WWII-bomber-crew casting of ethnically diverse types, since the film doesn’t play to the ethnicity of the characters. I do, however, object to the fact that I could rightly guess — in the first 20 minutes — just which character would almost, but not quite, make it to the end for a tug at the heartstrings. I also find it peculiar, to say the least, that there’s not even a hint of sexuality in a story with all these hormonal teenage boys trapped in a confined space, nor is there any particular interest in the arrival of a girl. But what I really take issue with is all the uninspired running away from the movie’s rather clunky, giant CGI spider monsters. It’s a case of when the action cranks up, the interest goes down.
In many respects, this is just another look into a dystopian future complete with the requisite “chosen one.” (I always expect someone to announce at the end of these things, “And how can this be? For he is the Kwisatz Haderach!”) And while it is better than most — and poised to take the weekend box office — interest in it suffers from the inevitable YA dystopian sci-fi fatigue. The setup for this one places this group of boys in a glade in the middle of a maze. The maze is the only possible avenue of escape, but it comes with built-in perils. Not only does it close — and reconfigure itself — at sundown, but after dark, these deadly things called “grievers” (the monster spider things) come out. This, of course, means that until the arrival of the movie’s chosen one, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien, TV’s Teen Wolf), no one has ever survived a night in the maze. Chances are you can pretty much figure out where this is going, especially since there are more than a few passing similarities to The Hunger Games. But there are differences, and those are not without their interest.
Without getting into the realm of spoilers, it’s fair to report that these boys — finally joined by one girl, Teresa (Kaya Scodelario, who bears an unfortunate resemblance to Kristen Stewart) — have no idea why they’re here. They also have no memory of their lives prior to this existence, which makes their plight more desperate and interesting. It’s also of note — without saying too much — that this is no kind of bread-and-circus entertainment to appease the appetites of some jaded ruling class. And somehow — thanks to the production design and the direction — this becomes less simplistic and more disturbing. There’s no hint of easy social commentary here — despite the obvious parallel to Lord of the Flies.
Several things make this an improvement over run-of-the-mill movies of its type. The screenplay is generally intelligent — with a notable lapse or two. The characters are surprisingly well-defined, and the acting is definitely above average. The stills for the film make Dylan O’Brien look like a graduate of the Corey Haim School of Mouth Breather Acting, but that’s deceptive. He comes across much better in the actual film — and unlike Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games series, he’s actually likable. And while there’s no getting around the fact that Kaya Scodelaria looks like an imitation Kristen Stewart, she’s a far more appealing performer. Thomas Brodie-Sangster is the key supporting actor, giving the role more depth than appears on the page. The weak link is Will Poulter — or more to the point, the way his character is written. His misgivings about Thomas and the sense of jealousy about his own loss of status are one thing, but his final eruption into what can only be called lunacy feels forced and unmotivated. Much has been written about the ending being a letdown. I admit it contains a cliche of alarming proportions, but I didn’t feel let down at all. Rather, I felt intrigued by where it might go in the sequel, which is no mean accomplishment. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, including some disturbing images.