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Friday, September 19, 2014

Review: The Maze Runner

Recently, a meme on Facebook asked people to name 10 books that have influenced them. Participants were urged to go with their gut, not to overthink it or to post what you think people wanted you to say. Seven of the ten most commonly chosen titles were 'young adult' books. Which makes sense, if you think about it! We're most likely to be influenced by something we experience at a younger age, when we're still changing who we are and what we believe with some regularity. But even so, I was surprised to see The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins' YA juggernaut, make the top 10, new as it was. I underestimated the series' popularity, despite giving us the first female-led film in nearly five decades to win the American box office. Is it any wonder that, after only two movies, we're already seeing a number of knock-offs spring up? Earlier this year, we had allegorical Christian knock-off Divergent, and now we have James Dashner's 'Boys Only' take on the material, The Maze Runner. How does it stack up?

The plot is simple, often to the movie's benefit. A boy wakes up in an elevator, surrounded by boxes and with no memory of who or where he is. When he reaches his destination, he finds a camp full of teenage boys who have built a small society in the glade in which they're trapped. Surrounding them on all sides is a massive maze. The maze is filled with monsters. It changes every night. As the boy, Thomas, explores the limits of his new world, the people who put them there begin to toy with the rules, and the boys' impromptu society slowly becomes less Robinson Crusoe and more Lord of the Flies.

And that's where the trouble begins. First-time director Wes Ball and first-time writers Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers, and T.S. Nowlin take their time in the film's opening half. The characters have room to breathe, the mystery is surprisingly gripping, and the maze is imbued with a genuine sense of menace that is well-maintained... for a time. But once the action kicks in and Thomas finds himself officially made a Maze Runner, the film shifts gear and becomes something far less interesting. Uninspired creature design doesn't matter when you're only half-glimpsing them in the shadows; but when you're seeing a dozen of the things run around in a subpar action sequence, well, that's another story. And as Ball and his writers begin answering some of Thomas' many questions, you can see plot hole after plot hole opening up, rapidly threatening to swallow the film whole.

Thankfully, The Maze Runner is grounded with a surprisingly strong cast. Teen Wolf's Dylan O'Brien, far and away the strongest element of MTV's hit show, makes a strong lead. Despite his amnesia, O'Brien plays him as relentlessly curious, regardless of consequence. Like Katniss and Harry Potter - and unlike Divergent's Tris and Twilight's Bella - Thomas is a character, rather than simply an audience identification avatar, and even when he fucks up, he still keeps pushing. Stock antagonist Will Poulter is a bit shallow, but until the very end of the movie, he's still a surprisingly sympathetic character, a guy who has fully bought in to the traditions of his community and hates to see it fall apart around him. Ki Hong Lee and Aml Ameen stand out as the group's leaders, both managing to display an effortless confidence. The only weak link in the group is Kaya Scodelario as Teresa, the only female cast member for much of the film's runtime. I have a hard time holding it against her, though, as the script gives her absolutely nothing to do. She's a plot twist, not a person, and that's tough to play. The Maze Runner is better than your average YA adaptation, but it sadly seems to have ditched the much-needed gender-parity the genre brought to big budget filmmaking, and for no reason whatsoever - the story never touches on why women were excluded from the maze.

The Maze Runner isn't on the 'essential YA' level of, say, last year's Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and it more than ably matches the preposterously stupid world-building the genre is fast becoming known for, but I don't hold that against it. Too much. Yet. Honestly, a series of almost unbelievably dumb cliffhanger plot twists in the film's final five minutes aside - though those final 5-10 minutes should not be forgotten, as they are truly awful - The Maze Runner is downright enjoyable even in its weaker moments, winning despite its nonsensical nature. Those who find that the current crop of YA books have little to say and say it as artlessly as possible won't find much to win them over here, but if you're down for a quick, clever adventure story, you could do far, far worse.

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