Mark Reviews Movies

The Maze Runner


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Wes Ball

Cast: Dylan O'Brien, Aml Ameen, Ki Hong Lee, Blake Cooper, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Will Poulter, Kaya Scodelario, Patricia Clarkson 

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements and intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, including some disturbing images)

Running Time: 1:53

Release Date: 9/19/14

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 18, 2014

The most repeated line in The Maze Runner is an appropriate one: "What the hell is that?" The film opens in darkness. We only hear the whirring and clanking of gears, and we say, "What the hell is that?" Light emerges. It's a grated elevator, and a teenage boy pops into frame. There are more noises. Some screeching thing appears from the shadows, and the congregation says, "What the hell is that?" The pitch-black sky opens to reveal a blindingly sunny day, and a group of other teenage boys are waiting where the elevator ends. Our hero is thrown to the ground, gets up, runs like the wind, and falls on his face. He looks up only to see that he is surrounded by towering, stone walls, and in case anyone wasn't certain by now, it's time for the refrain: "What the hell is that?"

The Maze Runner throws us smack-dab in the middle of mystery without a bit of background. We, like the protagonist, receive the information as we go, but it seems that with every revelation we have only more questions than answers.

The difference between a mystery that works and one that doesn't is pretty simple but entirely subjective. A good mystery leaves us actively wondering what will come next; a bad one has us anticipating that something will come next but makes us impatient to just get to the reveal, already. The creator of a good mystery knows that the solution is secondary to our enjoyment of watching the clues unfold and the pieces come together.

This is a film that thrives on its mystery. It's a pretty good one, too, and the screenplay by Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers, and T.S. Nowlin (based on the novel by James Dashner) does a fine job keeping us in the dark and twisting our expectations of what's to come.

The boy in the elevator is Thomas (Dylan O'Brien), although he doesn't know that when he arrives in "the Glade"—the grassy area enclosed by the great, stone walls. He has no memory of anything, in fact, and neither do the other "Gladers." They're led by Alby (Ami Ameen), who explains to Thomas the rules and history of their small society. Three years ago, he was the first to ride in "the Box," and another boy has come to the Glade in the same way every month since then.

No one really asks "who" brought them there or who has been giving them supplies with each new arrival, because, after three years of the same pattern, the Gladers have resigned themselves to the fact that they likely will never know. They are convinced that the only way out lies at the end of a massive maze, which is on the other side of those walls.

It's an effective society that the Gladers have established for themselves, with farming, huts, towers, and a class system that puts each member to their best use. Key among them are "the Runners," who go into the Maze every day to memorize its patterns (Its layout changes nightly), map it, and try to find the exit. The Maze is also home to "the Grievers," creatures that no one has seen—or at least no one who has lived to tell about them.

That's about it in terms of exposition. If it sounds simple, that's because it is. The screenplay clearly sets up the rules of the plot and certain expectations for how the story will unfold from that starting point. The trick is in how the script finds ways to alter the story's established patterns. It's a game of theme and variation. We know everyone's supposed to get out of the Maze before the gates close at sundown, so here is our hero entering it at the worst possible time. We know the Grievers, which are fairly gruesome creations that exist as a combination of the mechanical and the organic, are unstoppable, so here is our hero face-to-face with one of them. We know the door to the Maze closes every night, so here is one night where the entryway stays open.

Again, it's simple stuff, but it works because the world of the film is confined—both in terms of space and its systems—and solidly defined. The characters aren't rich, but we understand their motives. Alby wants to keep order; Gally (Will Poulter) has become convinced that the Glade is his new, permanent home. Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), the second-in-command, is uncertain of his authority, and Thomas is certain that his dreams hold some answer to the questions everyone has stopped asking. Some of the more intriguing ideas—like a possible mutiny or how the introduction of a girl named Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) into the Glade would affect a community of teenage boys—are sidelined, but that's easy enough to forgive. They're not really the point, after all.

The point is entering this world, which director Wes Ball portrays as grimy and hopeless and sometimes violently cruel, without any knowledge and discovering with each step that things are even more enigmatic than they first appeared. It's a cleverly plotted film, and by the end, we might think we know the "who" and the "why" and the "what." Then again, The Maze Runner is based only on the first novel in a series of books. Theoretically, there will be sequels in which the questions will multiply and the answers will become clearer, but until then, this film shows some confidence by ending on the same note with which it began: uncertainty.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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