Director: Wes Ball
Screenplay: Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers, T.S. Nowlin
Novel: James Dashner
Producers: Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey, Ellen Goldsmith-Vein, Gotham Group, Joe Hartwick Jr., Lee Stollman, Lindsay Williams
Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Aml Ameen, Ki Hong Lee, Blake Cooper, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Will Poulter, Dexter Darden, Kaya Scodelario
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 113 min.
Another week, another young adult franchise hopeful hits the big screen. Adapted from the book trilogy by James Dashner, The Maze Runner is the seventh YA film to hit screens in the past twelve months and while it hasn’t hit the success level of Hunger Games or even Divergent, it seems to have effectively avoided the gallows of recent DOA flops like Vampire Academy and The Mortal Instruments. The “unique” hook in this series is that it’s headed by a male lead (Dylan O’Brien) and the marketing wisely played up the action elements of the plot in order to pull in a broader audience that expanded across multiple demographics and brought in young men and women alike. It was certainly a strategy that worked and with the help of surprisingly strong international grosses out of the gate and an economic production budget ($34 million compared to the $85 million of Divergent or the $110 million of the doomed Ender’s Game), no one should be surprised that Fox quickly made the move to announce a sequel for Maze Runner on their schedule for the same weekend next year.
As far as the quality of the film itself — well it seems that The Maze Runner falls in the pattern of these YA movies for me personally in that the ones I actually like are poorly received (Divergent, The Golden Compass) while the ones that somehow skate by with passable reception from critics or somehow even get rapturous praise are ones that don’t work for me on any level. I’m not sure why I keep finding myself coming back to these films with the hopes of receiving some form of entertainment but they can occasionally manage to keep my attention occupied for the better part of a few hours, as Divergent did earlier this year with a well-paced run through its derivative, predictable, franchise-baiting plotline. The Maze Runner doesn’t add anything new to spice up the game, despite its tease of that “unique” quality of being centered on a cast almost entirely made up of young men, but its biggest crime is that for the large majority of its running time it is unrelentingly dull.
These young adult movies have seen some impressive names step behind the director chair but Maze Runner finds itself as the feature debut of visual effects artist Wes Ball and there’s no doubting the fact that this feels like a first-time effort of someone who can’t bring the energy required to keep a film’s pulse moving. Set inside the world of “The Glade”, O’Brien stars as Thomas, a new entrant into this Lord of the Flies-esque society of boys who emerge out of an elevator in the ground to discover themselves stranded alone in a walled-off community with no memory of anything that happened in their life prior to that very moment. In a practically neverending series of exposition dumps over the first act of the film, Thomas is educated by various members of the community on the rules that they have learned to operate with in order to keep the peace between this group of hormonal, angry young men who are desperate for a way out (though oddly they don’t seem to be too upset about their predicament). Surely there was a way to make this necessary divulging of information more palatable than literally doing nothing but having Thomas incredulously ask a bunch of questions and having a character simply explain the answers to him in vivid detail, but apparently Maze Runner’s script didn’t have the wherewithal to conjure anything up.
As he becomes accustomed to The Glade (the name the boys coined for their setting), Thomas’ curiosity gets the better of him and he yearns to explore the mysterious maze that lurks beyond the walls that keep the boys prisoner. Every day a group of runners go out and try to map out the maze, while returning home before the walls shut at night and leave them caught out there with the ravenous, ridiculous-looking monsters known as “Grievers”. It’s all boilerplate YA nonsense without much depth or care for construction thrown in as O’Brien tries to force emotions and reactions out of an uninteresting character and the script struggles to come up with any real twists to keep the plot exciting. Early on, when The Glade’s second-in-command Newt (played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster) tells Thomas that no one survives a night in the maze it’s like the movie is just asking you to be patient and wait half an hour so that you can get to the inevitable scene where Thomas (surprise!) is left out in the maze for a night and lives to tell the tale.
The first two acts of The Maze Runner play out exactly as you’d expect them to, with all of the various details and requisite dynamics sketched in through the thin characterizations of the group’s leader Alby (Aml Ameen, who along with Sangster are the only actors who manage to escape this unscathed), the rote and relentlessly irritating (for no reason other than drama) group villain Gally (Will Poulter, whose acclaim and popularity continues to baffle me as he turns in another dreadful performance), the trite cliche of the young innocent Chuck (Blake Cooper) and so on. Kaya Scodelario shows up midway through as the first female entrant into The Glade, which you would think could turn into an interesting plot point and a shift in the routine of this society but they do absolutely nothing with it and she quickly becomes background noise. My blank expression over the course of the majority of Ball’s film had me wishing for anything interesting to happen that would wake me out of my practical slumber but once the third act came along and threw the wrench in the system I found myself wishing I could go back to simpler times when this was just a maddeningly dull exercise in recycled tedium.
If The Maze Runner was primarily nothing more than a flat, wasted experience then the final stretch was one so unbelievably insipid that I wanted to scratch out my eyes from watching it. The exposition dumps come back in full force, including one of the most unbearable offered up in the film that wastes one of my favorite actors whose role I won’t mention here as not to spoil it for anyone unfortunate enough to see this film, as they explain the position these boys are in, the “truth” of their predicament and where things are going to go in that inevitable sequel that will soon be threatening our cinemas once again. The idea of some answers to these mysteries could perhaps be enticing if I cared about any of the characters, anything about their world, or the film did anything to ignite an interest in its plot rather than offering up vague teases at answers that never come and do nothing but try to hook the bait in for the next entry. Clearly it’s something that worked for some people out there, as The Maze Runner is bizarrely one of the few YA franchise-starters to earn positive ratings from critics and it did remarkably well at the box-office but for this viewer I can’t ever imagine subjecting myself to another journey down this wretched rabbit hole. When that aforementioned great actor states that this part of the journey is over and it’s time to begin “phase two”, I couldn’t believe that Ball didn’t just have them look straight into the camera and accept the joke that all of them must be in on.