Don’t be fooled by its Rotten Tomatoes score: The Maze Runner is a soulless, joyless affair.
A competently made, technically-sound production, with a few set pieces that land in the vicinity of impressive, the movie ultimately sacrifices worthwhile character and drama for a well-shot attempt to cash in on the YA trend.
Based on the YA novel of the same name, Maze Runner pinches from Lost, Lord of the Flies and a bit from Hunger Games (everything but the good parts) to tell the story of Thomas (Teen Wolf‘s Dylan O’Brien) — a young man who awakens to find himself riding in a freight elevator full of supplies, live stock and containers labeled W.C.K.D.
The elevator deposits him in The Glade, a green landscape surrounded by a deadly maze, where he has no memory of who he is or how he got here. His interactions with fellow teens, who arrived here the same way he did, gives way to Thomas trying to make a run for it before realizing that there is no escape — except, maybe, through the maze.
Thomas quickly rises to Maverick status amongst the makeshift society that calls this mysterious place home, thanks in large part to the fact that he can run fast, and provide insight into navigating the maze that no one else can. (That is as close to characterization as the movie gets, folks.)
Alby (Aml Ameen) is the Glade’s first-ever resident, and everyone’s leader. While Gally (We’re the Millers‘ Will Poulter) is the one-note second-in-command more concerned with keeping order in a place that’s 90 percent made out of a maze and guarded by slimy, genetically-engineered robot beast things. Every night, the Maze changes shape and, the next day, Runners enter the maze to map new paths that hopefully lead to freedom.
Soon, Thomas — against Gally’s wishes — leads a ragtag group of kids into the maze, using his unique perspective on the labyrinth to find a way out and some answers to their questions.
First-time feature director Wes Ball, who got the job based on his 2012 style-over-substance short film, Ruin, executes action with a very efficient, risk-free eye.
Whatever budget he had to work with, he puts it all on screen — though there appears to have been a less-than-carte blanche effects budget for the action scenes involving the aforementioned creatures. But the derivative script, accredited to Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers, T.S. Nowlin, denies him any opportunities to showcase any emotional storytelling tricks he may have up his technically-proficient sleeve.
O’Brien mostly just runs, glowers and sweats his way through the picture. He sells a certain vulnerability to the character, and is clearly the best actor of the bunch, but the role of Thomas is far from hitting Katniss-level highs. The weakest links in the film are, sadly, its only female characters: The unlikable Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) and the exposition-spouting Eva Paige (the wasted Patricia Clarkson).
Teresa has nothing to do, save for providing Thomas with someone to talk to. She does nothing vital to push the narrative forward and smacks of wasted opportunity; in Lost parlance, she could have been the Kate to Thomas’ Jack. Instead, she is just another body that catering had to feed on set that day.
And Clarkson? She comes off somewhere between phoning it in and waiting in line at the DMV. And you can’t blame her, as her character does nothing but spout exposition in the third act, saying things like “W.C.K.D. is good” — a line the script treats like the pinnacle of narrative sophistication.
All of these stem from Maze Runner‘s biggest problem: Its core premise. Both the book and film are built upon an elevator pitch-friendly conceit that is fundamentally broken. What could an organization like W.C.K.D. — one with the power and wealth to build massive mazes and populate them with biomechanical monsters never before seen — possibly stand to gain “In the name of Science!” by sending teens into their elaborate Skinner Boxes?
Since the filmmakers couldn’t be bothered with finding a worthwhile answer to that question, audiences shouldn’t bother paying to see their movie.
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