Monday, September 22, 2014

THE MAZE RUNNER Is Solid Prologue to a Bigger Story


- By now we all know the standard YA novel-to-movie adaptation template. Basically, a high-concept sci-fi/fantasy/horror premise (vampires, werewolves, post-apocalyptic dystopias) gets "CW-ized" (for lack of a better term), and tweaked and optimized so as to best appeal to a target demo of teenage girls. This leads to a lot of movies in the genre that seem to squash their own potential, by forcing MTV VMA-ready actors and melodramatic love triangles into films that could have been better if not for all of their pandering. Sometimes you get some happy accidents (i.e. the great Jennifer Lawrence cast as Katniss in The Hunger Games). But more often than not, I tend to view these movies as less-than their non-YA counterparts. THE MAZE RUNNER, however, makes a real go at being something more than just another YA movie. In many ways, it reminded me as much of 80's kids adventure movies like The Goonies as it did The Hunger Games and its ilk. The film avoids a lot of the usual trappings of the genre. With no shoehorned-in love triangle, some moments of true brutality and danger, and a Twilight Zone-ish mystery at its core, THE MAZE RUNNER definitely feels like a different breed.

That doesn't mean that this is a perfect movie, though. THE MAZE RUNNER never quite nails the Twilight Zone-ish vibe it's going for. It suffers a bit from Lost-itus, where characters answer questions with questions for no good reason, and characters never seem to ask the right questions, or follow-up. That sort of thing is a pet peeve of mine, unless it's done really, really well and the entire tone of the story is conducive to that sort of mysterious vibe. THE MAZE RUNNER has a Twilight Zone-ish premise, but there's little about the movie's aesthetic that feels dreamlike or surreal. Everything is visualized in standard blockbuster fashion. That's not to say there aren't some great action scenes and fun moments - but, given the mysterious nature of the premise, it would have been cool if the movie's aesthetics made more effort to match it. Director Wes Ball shows off some really solid action set-piece chops - many of which have an additional element of sci-fi horror to them. But what he doesn't really do is give his film a real mood or atmosphere beyond standard YA movie stuff.

That mysterious premise is this: a group of boys finds themselves stranded in a glade surrounded by a vast, high-walled maze. None have any memory of their past, except for their name. Every month, an elevator shoots up from underground and deposits a new boy in the glade. For a while, there was chaos, but the first boy who arrived in the glade - Alby - became the boys' leader and helped establish order and rules. A group of "Runners" was created from the fastest and strongest in the glade, tasked with exploring the maze and trying to map it, in hopes of figuring out a way to escape. However, the maze is constantly shifting, making navigation difficult. In addition, it's filled with roaming monsters called Grievers, whose sting is deadly. Despite that, the boys live in relative peace, but their world gets shaken up when Thomas arrives. Thomas is determined to figure out how to escape the maze - rules be damned. Thomas' arrival signals a new chapter. There are hints that Thomas himself has knowledge of the people who created the maze and sent the boys there. And when yet another person arrives in the glade - this time a girl (the first ever) - suspicions are aroused when it's clear that she knows Thomas, even if she doesn't remember how or why.

It's a cool premise, no question. But I'm also not sure if there's enough substance here to really make the film flow well. Here's the thing: the basic plot points I just summarized invite dozens of questions about the true nature of the maze, the back-story of the boys, etc. And those questions, inevitably, are at the foreground of the entire movie. But the hints at answers only really begin to come at the very end of the film, and even then, they feel more like teases for the already-greenlit sequel. Plus, a lot of seemingly key plot points are left mostly unaddressed at all. Case in point: the first girl to enter the glade, Teresa - other than her memory of Thomas from before the glade, she is pretty much a non-character in this film. Who was she? Why was she the first and only girl to enter the glade? Why was there a note attached to her saying she would be the last? All of these issues will presumably be addressed in future movies. But for now, in this one, it feels unfulfilling.

Dylan O'Brian, from MTV's popular Teen Wolf, is the lead. He does a nice job, and really shows some good range in the film. His character, Thomas, shakes things up in the glade by being proactive and not settling for the status quo - and O'Brien is good at playing the desperate-but-determined Chosen One, who may or may not also have a dark side. There are a couple of other interesting turns in the movie from relative newcomers. Aml Ameen has a real presence as Alby, the wise-beyond-his-years leader of the boys. This guy could go places. Also good is Blake Cooper as Chuck (seemingly a bit of an homage to Chunk from The Goonies), the lovable younger kid who is like the goofy kid brother to a lot of the glade boys. Thomas Brodie-Sangster, from Game of Thrones, is also good as Newt, the spritely friend of Thomas' who helps him learn about the glade and the maze. As Teresa, Kaya Scodelario doesn't have a ton to do, at least not yet. But she seems to have the chops to be a compelling franchise co-lead, so I'll be curious if the character steps up in future installments. Scodelario definitely seems capable. Finally, I'll give a shout-out to Will Poulter, who I thought was so great way back when in Son of Rambow, and has now emerged as a go-to young actor to play slightly off-kilter antagonists. In this movie, he does a great job as Gally - a volatile kid in the glade who resents Thomas' quick rise to influence among the group.

I mentioned earlier that the film has some great action scenes. To reiterate, there's some really good stuff here, and a lot of it feels surprisingly dark and horror-infused. The Grievers are truly creepy creatures, and there are some legitimately riveting moments in the maze as Thomas and his friends try to escape their clutches. Later in the film, the Grievers stage a full-scale attack that is fairly awesome and flat-out scary at times. The movie doesn't pull punches here, and key characters are killed in the melee.

Ultimately, I liked THE MAZE RUNNER, but this film on its own felt pretty insubstantial. Because the film has minimal Lord of the Flies-esque infighting among the boys, the focus here is really on the overarching mystery. So the strength and weakness here is that this first film feels like a mere prologue to something much bigger. The hints we get towards the end at the big-picture mythology here are pretty intriguing, no question. But it remains to be seen if subsequent films make this one seem better in retrospect. As is, THE MAZE RUNNER is a solid-if-not-mind-blowing sci-fi adventure flick that will, ultimately, be judged on the strength of the franchise as a whole. So yeah, those sequels had better be good. No pressure, guys.

My Grade: B

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