The Maze Runner

2014 - 113 minutes

Rated: PG-13

Directed by: Wes Ball

Written by: Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers, T.S. Nowlin

Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Will Poulter, Patricia Clarkson, Aml Ameen, Ki Hong Lee, Blake Cooper, Dexter Darden, Chris Sheffield

On the ever-evolving scale measuring the quality of YA novel to film adaptations, The Maze Runner fits several notches above sparkly vampires and a bit below boy wizards. In short, it’s better than several, but not among the absolute best. Based on the first novel in a three-part series by James Dashner, the film attains a level of originality in this genre by establishing a filmic universe and language without a surplus of stained world-building rigmarole (lookin’ at you Divergent).

With no context, we’re thrown right into the action. Jolting awake in a rapidly ascending elevator, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) is greeted by a large group of teenage boys when the doors open. He’s told he’s arrived at The Glade, a square oasis of greenery enclosed by ominous concrete walls. All he can remember is his name.

As one would expect, this place is populated by an array of personalities, including leader Alby (Aml Ameen) and uptight Gally (Will Poulter). Thomas is eager to learn more about his new environs and why he’s there, especially when told the humungous concrete structure surrounding The Glade is an extensive maze filled with deadly creatures dubbed Grievers. The newcomer wants to become a “runner” – the title of those tasked with exploring and mapping the maze – in hopes of finding a way out. The mystery deepens when the first female, Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), arrives in The Glade and suggests a past connection with Thomas.

The Maze Runner engages in ways other YA films do not, tossing us into an unfamiliar world with a protagonist that is learning as he goes along. There’s not a ton of exposition to sort through, and information is disseminated when needed in ways that don’t feel forced or obligatory. He asks questions we’re asking, most of them beginning with, “Why don’t we just…” that are answered logically or by simply stating, “Anything you’ve thought of, we’ve thought of.” For the most part the same holds true for director Wes Ball and the three credited screenwriters, who don’t give us ample opportunity to question the proceedings.

The maze, of course, becomes the primary setting in a third act that includes chases and showdowns with Grievers, but plenty of time is devoted to The Glade and the world the boys have created there. Different groups with different jobs are defined without marginalizing individuals. There are real characters here with organic conflict that goes beyond shouting and fisticuffs. Thankfully, the issues are based more in subtle philosophical differences than displays of physical might, and the crew of young actors does a good job of finding the right tenor to their struggles.

The cast is uniformly solid, beginning with O’Brien as a driven Thomas, showing strength and vulnerability. Poulter is effective in portraying Gally as an adversary that isn’t a villain in the classic sense; he’s just a guy whose commitment to The Glade reveals insecurities about exploring the unknown – a stark contrast to the intrepid Thomas. Scodelario is good at staring pensively, but isn’t given much else to do here.

The major issue with The Maze Runner is the inevitable build to “something bigger” that is sure to come in subsequent installments. While the third act denouement is a palatable mixture of creature combat and narrative reveals, motivations are left open to scrutiny. We’re left questioning the connectivity of certain threads, and flashbacks shared by Thomas and Teresa don’t resolve satisfactorily. Perhaps in the sequel. On the whole, The Maze Runner does a decent job of being somewhat self-contained – at least for first two-thirds of the movie – while generating interest for what’s to come.

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