Sunday, September 21, 2014

Review: The Maze Runner (2014)

The Maze Runner (2014)

Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, including some disturbing images

Out of the wave of teen-oriented dystopian movies meant greenlit in response to the success of The Hunger GamesThe Maze Runner, based on the novel by James Dashner, is the first one I've seen that actually comes close to matching up to it. Whereas Divergent was let down by a bland, uninvolving romance that ate far too much of the film, The Maze Runner stands out with its mystery focus that at times seems reminiscent of Lost at its best. It's got a solid cast, a gripping storyline, tension coming out the ears, and a sense of originality that one usually doesn't expect in a teen dystopia, helping it more than make up for a lacking ending that served almost solely to lead into the sequel. As I left the theater, I really wanted to read the book.

The film follows Thomas, a teenage boy who suddenly wakes up in an elevator, not knowing anything about who he is outside his name. He is deposited in a glade with grasslands and a small forest surrounded by high walls, finding that several other young men, ranging in age from adolescent to almost twenty, are also living there under the same circumstances. They have gone through the Lord of the Flies phase and built a small, subsistence-level society. Every day, they send out some of their own, known as runners, to venture beyond the walls into the vast maze that surrounds the glade, looking for a way to escape. The runners must always return to the glade before the gate closes for the night and traps them outside, because at night, cyborg monsters known as grievers come out and stalk the maze; nobody has ever survived a night outside the safety of the glade. Before long, Thomas' curiosity gets the better of him, and despite the warnings of the other men he enters the maze to rescue a pair of runners, setting off a chain of events that lead to him and his new friends unraveling just what exactly the maze is and what it's meant for.

The film makes the wise move playing the mystery angle from the get-go. This immediately sets it apart from the many other teen dystopian movies out there, as, for the most part (I'll get to that later), it doesn't hold the viewer's hand and explain everything. Instead, it throws us straight into its world and makes figuring out just what the hell is going on into a major part of the story. I compared it to Lost earlier, and not just because the grievers make a nice analogue to the smoke monster -- the central mystery of the protagonists' enclosed circumstances, and Thomas' background in particular, is the driving force of the film for much of its runtime. It was an engaging mystery that had me wondering just what Thomas and his fellow runners would find next, both in the maze and within their own society in the glade. It helped that, every time the film went into the maze, tension dripped from it like a wet T-shirt. The grievers, while a constant presence, are kept in the shadows for much of the film, only coming out in full in select scenes, and every time you do catch a glimpse of them, you're left itching as to whether they'll be around the next corner. In the hands of a lesser director, they could've just been CGI abominations that distracted from the film (they don't really look that impressive in full view), but director Wes Ball makes them into an imposing threat whose mere presence is reason to fear for the lives of the people they're chasing.

And it helped that I could give a damn about those people as well. Leading the cast is Dylan O'Brien, the star of the MTV series Teen Wolf, and while the character he played didn't give him much of a chance to stretch his range as an actor, it clearly played to his strengths as he gave a solid performance. He was inherently likable and relatable as the guy whose eyes we see this strange new world through, the avatar for the viewer to explore it, learning about it himself just as we do. It's the supporting cast, however, that impressed me the most. Ki-hong Lee was the standout as the head runner Minho, combining toughness with a sense of cool, and also unafraid to get emotional and scared when he had to. Blake Cooper's Chuck, meanwhile, was the character who should have annoyed me the most, an adolescent boy who quickly befriends Thomas, but instead I found myself enjoying every moment the little curly-haired kid was on screen. He brought some much-needed levity that humanized the proceedings. Finally, Will Poulter made a great "villain" (for lack of a better term) as Gally, who believes that Thomas' actions are going to get them all killed -- and has good reason to believe it. He may be a bad guy, but his motivations for being such come from genuine fear rather than simple douchebaggery. The only weak link was Kaya Scodelario as Teresa, a girl who is delivered to the maze midway through the film (the first girl the maze has seen). I can't say I was impressed by her performance, especially when she was called to take part in the action scenes, as she seemed to be fairly dull in the part. She apparently plays a much larger role in the sequels, and while her small role in this film may have prevented me from getting a good handle on her acting skills, I do worry that the actor they got to play her may not be up to the task.

Also worrying me about the sequels: the ending. Without spoiling anything, the film culminates in a giant infodump by Patricia Clarkson telling us the whole goal of the maze, followed by a cliffhanger. This marked a sharp dive in quality, as the sense of mystery evaporated, replaced by the dystopian teen-lit cliche of an apocalyptic disaster that's produced an evil, powerful organization that does terrible things to young people. (And get this: this group's acronym is WCKD. And yes, it's actually pronounced "wicked" in the film.) Given the buildup, I was expecting a twist on the usual tropes, not something I've already seen done better in the past. Hell, knowing that this was the first in a series, I would've been better off with leaving the motivations of the villains as the next mystery to be solved, instead of having it told to me right here.

Score: 4 out of 5

While some of the things in this film have me worried about the next one, as it stands this is still 90% of a damn good sci-fi mystery that kept me on my toes until the end. Even with the disappointing ending, it's still firmly recommended.

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