Every new YA movie that includes a supernatural or dystopian aspect now sits in the shadow of The Hunger Games. The Hunger Games has taken on an epic sci-fi approach weaving social commentary into its dystopian setting. Divergent is content to be a Hunger Games imitator. And now we have The Maze Runner, a film edging towards the mystery and sci-fi of The Hunger Games, but trying to find its own way by establishing a unique world that still plays with familiar coming-of-age themes. Thankfully, director Wes Ball‘s confident feature debut creates a distinct, intriguing setting packed with thrilling action scenes. Despite the lack of a strong lead performance, Ball has successfully translated a new young adult property to the big screen.
A young man awakens in an elevator with no memory of how he got there, his life, or even his name. When the elevator comes to the top, he enters “the glade”, a lush environment filled with trees, forest, a lake, and other natural features that allows inhabitants to live off the land. It’s also surrounded by a gigantic stone maze filled with mysterious, violent creatures known as “grievers”. After Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) remembers his name, he becomes even more curious about getting through the maze, and becomes determined to lead the glade’s other inhabitants—who are all male—to freedom. He must also solve the mystery of why he and the others were placed inside the maze in the first place.
The script may not be particularly smooth when it comes to explaining how everything works. The introductory clause, “We call them…” is used on multiple occasions whether it refers to the grievers, the glade, or the “runners”, the fastest inhabitants tasked with mapping the maze to find a way out. This causes Thomas to function more as an audience surrogate rather than his own character as he passively follows along the society’s leaders Alby (Aml Ameen), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and Minho (Ki Jong Lee).
Unfortunately, Thomas remains a character in search of a personality for the entirety of the movie. O’Brien lacks any charisma whatsoever and there’s nothing particularly memorable about his look. He’s familiar to fans of the MTV series Teen Wolf, and might rope in that demographic, but to those who haven’t seen his previous work, he’s an odd choice to cast as a leader that everyone—including people who have been stuck in the glade for years—would follow. The good news is that he has a tremendous supporting cast backing him up as Ameen, Brodie-Sangster, and Lee all display maturity well beyond their years. Their performances are part of what makes this society feel real.
The other part of the film’s realism comes from the design of the maze, which feels low-tech enough to mesh with the glade’s rustic look, but also has a futuristic vibe that lets us believe the maze changes every night. While I’m sure the movie will draw comparisons to Lord of the Flies because it’s a bunch of young men living in a state of nature, Maze Runner doesn’t share the themes of William Golding’s classic novel. It’s about brotherhood, and the size of the maze combined with the peacefulness of the glade lets us know there’s just enough to lull some of the prisoners into submission while other find their home daunting and constrictive. Alby hints at “dark days” when the population was in a state of war, but thankfully that’s not the case in the present setting. While there is some friction between Thomas and Gally (Will Poulter), the real antagonists are the maze and the grievers.
Broken down to its bare elements, Ball technically doesn’t have much to work with. He has grievers, a maze that can only move its walls, and prisoners armed with knives and wooden spears. Based on that, it’s remarkable how much he’s able to accomplish. All of the action scenes are exciting as Ball wraps us up in the speed of the chase, the agility of the characters, and most of all, the claustrophobia of the maze. The geography can get a little rough at times during the close-quarters combat, but whether the prisoners are fighting grievers or fighting through the maze Ball always knows when to cut the action off at the precise moment to leave us catching our breath.
I haven’t read any of the Maze Runner books, but I could feel the young adult vibe running through the story in the best possible sense. After the film, I briefly spoke with a fellow audience member who had read the books, and it sounds like screenwriters Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers, and T.S. Nowlin stripped the story down to the essentials, which you can feel in the film’s quick pacing. Ball has helped build a firm foundation for the series. The movie doesn’t need to be a Hunger Games imitator. The Maze Runner has found its own way through.