It would be easy to assume, given the recent deluge of movies adapted form red-hot popular YA novels,that there is a large factory hidden out the back of Hollywood in which pale and drawn authors, shackled to their typewriters (for they are far more evocative than PCs), are writing dystopian tales rife with plucky protagonists, a corrupt but powerful status quo and a thrilling challenge to the established order that, though resisted, is usually never less than overwhelmingly successful.
This is not to suggest of course that these authors who supply the movie-making apparatus with tales of humanity regained are lacking in narrative imagination; simply that there seems to be a rather established way in which these tales play themselves out with easily-recognisable villains, obvious heroes and clearly marked out windmills for would be Don Quixotes to tip their lances at.
While many of these elements are in place in the Wes Ball-directed The Maze Runner, based on the popular novel by James Dashner, it takes some time for them to become clearly-defined in a film that peppers its tautly-paced, action-packed running time with a lot more mystery and unknown foes that we are used to seeing in the movies that populate this genre.
From the very beginning when a dazed and confused Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) arrives via The Box stripped of all his memories in The Glade, a verdant, almost paradisiacal sharply-defined square of land surrounded by the towering stone walls of a constantly-realigning maze in which spider/scorpion/cyborg creatures known as Grievers patrol with murderous intent, it becomes clear that there is a lot more that the Gladers, the name the male-only inhabitants have given themselves, don’t know about their three year old home than they do.
It’s not that the Gladers, led by the calmly charismatic Alby (Aml Ameen), who has formed and administers a justly-run, well-ordered society out of the previous Lord of the Flies-esque chaos that threatened to kill all of the Glade’s inhabitants whose numbers are bolstered by the monthly arrival of another amnesiac male citizen, don’t possess any curiosity about who or what has imprisoned them within the maze’s intimidatingly tall and thick walls.
But with the Runners, the most fleet of foot among them who have been tasked with charting the entire length and breadth of the maze during daylight hours when one of the walls opens enough to gain them admittance, and the Grievers are snugly tucked away somewhere, failing to find any kind of escape route, thoughts mostly centre on growing food, constructing shelters and whiling away the evening hours with wrestling and other testosterone-fueled activities.
It’s a society that functions relatively well, given the highly unusual circumstances in which it exists, and a sizeable number of those who call it home, led by vocal bully boy Gally (Will Poulter), afraid of what lie beyond their understanding and comfort zones, see no reason to engage in the kind of testing of the waters that Thomas begins to almost instinctively indulge in, once he grows (quickly) accustomed to his unexpected home.
Powered by enough curiosity to send a legion of purring moggies to early graves, Thomas, with the aid of young kindhearted Chuck (Blake Cooper), who provides much of the little that passes for humourous diversion in The Maze Runner, chief Runner Minho (Ki Hong Lee) and second-in-command Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) dares to enter the maze at night (a big no-no), finds hitherto uncharted passages which may or may not lead to the outside world, and rallies the bulk of the Glade’s inhabitants to leave their comfortable prison behind and see what lies beyond the high stone walls that encircle them.
This includes the last person and first and only woman to arrive, or so the note she is clutching when she turns up unconscious in The Box, Theresa (Kaya Scodelario) who carries with her two mysterious vials, one of which is used impulsively by Thomas to save Alby when he succumbs to a “sting”, a fatal disease administered by the Grievers that sends its victims mad.
With Alby temporarily not in possession of the presence of mind to lead the group, Thomas steps in and sets in train a tumultuous chain of events that sees the Gladers idyll rocked to its foundations, such that the majority of the boys and Theresa have no choice but to take their chances in the maze.
The Maze Runner, though possessed of some quiet moments of contemplative character building and interaction, and archetypes that manage to transcend their limited parameters, is a film that seldom sits still.
Thomas, who it turns out has quite a few secrets tucked away that not even he is aware of till late in the piece, adjusts with alacrity to his new home, and within a day or two is challenging many of the rules and assumptions that have kept the Gladers safe within their home, which is, as is the way of these movies, nowhere near as safe as it looks, nor as consequence free as it might appear.
He triggers an avalanche of discoveries and answers, some of which don’t make sense – why for instance would the creators of the maze, who it turns out live in a resources-starved post-scorched-by-the-sun apocalyptic Earth devote so much time and effort, not to mention near non-existent food, water, building materials etc to testing their subjects in the human-sized equivalent of a rat maze? – but which in the fast and furious context of this highly enjoyable film are required to stand up to much sustained scrutiny.
Plot holes aside, The Maze Runner is actually a highly enjoyable dystopian tale that keeps many of its surprises and secrets in reserve until they will have the maximum effect.
The well-written, tightly-constructed screenplay by Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers and T.S. Nowlin, rarely puts a foot wrong, and doesn’t confuse full speed head pell-mell action for meaningful narrative momentum, resulting in a superbly told, gripping and mostly satisfying challenging of dystopian authority.
The only thing that doesn’t sit as well as it could have is the ending which features some deeply emotional moments, which though undeniably touching, lose something thanks to insufficient set up earlier in the film, and a cliffhanger element that though intriguing, is a little frustrating given the time it will take for the inevitable, CGI-heavy sequel to manifest itself.
All that said however, The Maze Runner is by and large a skilfully told, though admittedly not deeply substantial, tale set in a well-realised world that keeps enough mystery and uncertainty at the forefront of the action-heavy story to mark itself out as something a little different in the crowded YA genre of which it is indisputably a welcome part.