There’s no doubt that right now, young adult film adaptations are the current trend in Hollywood. Any and every popular young adult novel is being bought up in order to try and cash in on even some of the pay-out that trend-setters Hunger Games and Twilight have enjoyed. Thus far, none have managed to make close to the same kind of dent in terms of sales and merchandising, and as long as Hunger Games remains spewing out installments, its unlikely that will change. Even so, this hasn’t discouraged Wes Ball and his directorial début The Maze Runner from attempting to cultivate a similar audience. The first in a trilogy from author James Dashner, The Maze Runner‘s strength lies in it’s Lord of the Flies-esque riff on the typical YA destined-one story, with a keenly modern aesthetic and a focus on imagery and group dynamic rather than romance and forlorn dreams. And while it looks and plays the part, it suffers from a lack of depth.
Opening on the lead character, Thomas, played by Teen Wolf‘s Dylan O’Brien, as he suddenly wakes up to find himself locked in an elevator traveling upwards, a feeling of isolation is introduced very quickly. Upon reaching his destination, Thomas finds himself among a rag-tag group of other teenage boys who, over the last three years, woke up inside said elevator and landed at this enclosed space of green and forest, gradually setting up a make-shift society within the Glade as their numbers grew. The boys are surrounded, beyond the walls, by a gigantic maze, which opens during the day and closes at night, with certain members of the gang running it during the day, attempting to map out the labyrinth and learn more of its secrets. As the expanse grows during the film, so does the claustrophobic feeling of being trapped within the walls, or worse, trapped outside for the horrors of the maze, ‘grievers’ as they are known, to have at.
With each reveal about the puzzle of the maze and the tribal society that has been born in the middle of it, the curiosity for more exploration grows, and so does the tension between group enforcer Gally (Will Poulter, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) and new-comer Thomas, while second-in-command Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Game of Thrones) tries to keep the peace. This tension is what drives much of the characterization of the narrative as the bullish Gally rails against Thomas’ rebellious want to achieve freedom or die trying and the two regularly clash throughout the film, with increasingly violent circumstances. But while this is the source of much of the meat of the subtext, the scenes of discussion always come across too shallow for their own good, teetering on having a valid debate, but stopping short for fear of being misunderstood. There’s several moments where Runner feels like a spiritual younger sibling to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes from earlier this year, a film whose entire plot hinged on a look at tribalism and the negative aspect of conformity.
These misgivings are somewhat made-up for by the incredible visuals on offer within the titular maze, and indeed the film’s highlights often occur while Thomas and action partner Minho (Ki Hong Lee) are running the entangled walls; one particular stretch involving them cutting their entrance back to homebase particularly fine is just spectacular. From walls that look a hundred foot high with vines crawling all over them to the rotating blades and griever attacks of the later scenes, cinematographer Enrique Chediak has worked wonders with Wes to create the cryptic cage, opting for practical effects for much of the environment. The grievers, by contrast, have a much messier look in their pure CGI form, sticking out like a sore thumb against the surrounding visuals with their clunky movement and paint-by-numbers design.
All in all, The Maze Runner is a very middle-of-the-road addition to the buffet of young adult adaptations on offer. Not quite the spectacle or involved character play The Hunger Games is, nor is it the slightly cold, stale The Giver either. A selection of fine performances from some great up-and-comers does help its case, with supporting players Kaya Scodeario and Blake Cooper amongst others filling out the ensemble. Its not spectacular, and many of the plot-points, including the ending, don’t bear much after-thought, but as an analogy for growing pains and a safe option for the teen audience, it does just fine.
Fun if slightly superficial teen romp. 7/10