As if there weren’t enough Young Adult franchises battling at the box office already, The Maze Runner enters the arena with grand ambitions of wrestling the dystopian fiction crown from The Hunger Games. Based on the obligatory book series by James Dashner, this adaptation offers an entertaining flurry of mystery and frightening action but lacks the thematic heft of its contemporaries to be anything more than a naive pretender.
As in the book, the story follows Thomas (O’Brien), who awakens in a rusty elevator with no memory of who he is, only to find that he has been thrust into a walled-off clearing with a clutch of other boys who have established their own community called The Glades.
Each day the walls around the enclosure open to reveal an intricate maze, into which a team of athletically-strong boys – Runners – enter to search for a way out. Inside they have to navigate a labyrinth of ever-changing walls and creepy biomechanical guards called Grievers, and make it back before the doors close or face a hazardous night trapped in the maze.
Although initially treated as an outsider, Thomas is soon accepted by the majority of the group, until The Glades’ first and only girl (Scodelario) arrives with a message that Thomas may not be who he thinks he is.
It’s an intriguing premise that is strongly evocative of Lord of the Flies with its group of abandoned boys forming a functioning society in a dangerous environment. However, this movie doesn’t posses the thematic weight of William Golding’s classic, which is why it pales in comparison to the genre heavyweights.
The story has little to say about the nature of humanity or modern society, and the basic meaning seems to be that the fight for survival will always bring out the best or worst in a person – a theme that has been done before and in a more successful fashion, most notably in the far superior Hunger Games series.
This is not to say that the plot it boring; it’s not. The mystery of why the maze exists and what purpose the boys serve is a fascinating one, especially because Thomas’s attempts to find a way out often raise more questions than answers. It’s also well-directed by first-timer Wes Ball, whose vision of the maze as a nightmarish jungle of concrete towers and vines is suitably frightening and shot with a claustrophobic tension that will keep you pinned to your seat.
Where the film is weakest is in its development of its two-dimensional characters. You could argue that the boys’ lack of knowledge about their origins acts as a barrier to relating to them, but the real problem is that they show no personal growth as the story progresses. Thomas, for example, does not become a hero, but arrives as a fully-formed leader. Likewise, the rest of the cast never stretch beyond their predefined roles – the reluctant leader, the courageous weakling, the scowling antagonist, etc. – rather like the characters they play who always stick to the job they have been allocated in The Glades.
Such a mixed bag of elements inevitably leads to a confused climax, which thrills with an exhilarating escape attempt but ultimately bungles its final resolution. With no thematic or character-driven arc to wrap up, the story can only peter out with a typically sequel-bating non-ending that has become de rigour in this tiresome genre.
The Maze Runner may have lofty ambitions of being the next big teen franchise, but on the basis of this so-so first instalment, Thomas and his pubescent band of brothers have failed to pass their first test.
Running time: 113 mins; Genre: Dystopian Action; Released: 10 October 2014
Director: Wes Ball; Screenwriters: Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers, TS Nowlin;
Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Will Poulter, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster
Click here to watch the trailer for The Maze Runner