If I had a dollar for every review I’ve written in the last year using the word “dystopian” to describe the setting, I’d have at least $8. The moment something becomes popular like “The Hunger Games,” Hollywood goes into overdrive copying and pasting similar material and rushing it into production. This is the reason we’re getting a half-dozen comic-book adaptations a year. It also is the reason we’re getting a half-dozen science-fiction-inspired movies based on young-adult novels: They make money.
I’d be fine with some good old-fashioned futuristic Orwell-inspired shenanigans if they all weren’t so depressingly similar. “The Maze Runner” is the bastard child of “The Hunger Games” and “Saw,” with a little “Lord of the Flies” thrown in for good measure. It also shares a lot conceptually with shows like “Lost” and “Under the Dome.” It’s another movie that works much better in concept than execution.
The first 20 minutes of “Maze Runner” is pretty interesting. Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) wakes up in an elevator rapidly ascending. He has no memory of how he got there. When he arrives on the surface, he discovers a camp of young men who all arrived the same way. As the title suggests, they’re trapped in a quad at the center of a massive maze.
The maze itself presents a number of challenges, including a changing landscape and deadly creatures called “Greivers” that kill the hell out of anyone who tries to escape. The small patch of Eden at the center of the maze has created a community of strapping young men trying to survive and making peace with the fact that entering the maze is certain death. Thomas begins to question the rules of this insular little society. There are those who have become all too comfortable with their incarceration. They see the maze and their murderous inhabitants as forces with which they can bargain.
Half the fun of a movie like “The Maze Runner” is the mystery of what’s really going on. Finding out why all these young men have been sent off to this hellish landscape, with only the barest of resources to survive. Unfortunately, the fun is somewhat diminished when the movie follows every single cliché from the genre it’s attempting to ape. The influence of stories like “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent” is so painfully obvious that one can anticipate the outcome within the first 10 minutes. The movie’s attempt at a twist ending is right out of the dystopian teenage story playbook. If one finds themselves surprised by the resolution, they either don’t get out much or they’re the only person under the age of 9 who hasn’t read or seen “The Hunger Games.”
Speaking of clichés: Why are these movie so obsessed with assigning roles? It’s like these stories can’t be told without using a caste system. “Divergent” hit us over the head with ridiculous factions that seemed totally useless. “The Maze Runner” is barely 10 minutes in before it lets us know that everyone who joins the ranks of the all-boys club has a role. There are builders and farmers, but most importantly there are runners—the blokes who venture into the maze, map it out and try to find a way out. I understand the need for order in the face of chaos, but I was amused that a bunch of teenagers who were imprisoned at the center of a maze took the time to establish a basic societal order. “Hey, I just got transported into a nightmare scenario and have no memory of who I am. Let’s sit down and establish a class system based on occupations.” What the what?
The film itself is marginally entertaining. I appreciated the more nihilistic setting of this particular dystopian tale. There’s good effort made to establish this maddening scenario and to let the audience get to know some of these lost boys. The action scenes are fun, and the maze itself is a crazy blend of concrete, steel and terror. I think the 12-year-old me would have really enjoyed “Maze Runner.” The older version of me was a little underwhelmed by the predictable plot. Once you know where the maze ends, the terrifying journey seems more fruitless.
I also docked the film a half-star for the ellipses of an ending, which is part and parcel for every damn film these days. Nothing can ever just be wrapped up. You have to leave it open for a sequel in case the movie makes bank. I’m a little frustrated by the serialized nature that movies have taken of late. A show like “Lost” (or its mentally challenged sibling, “Under the Dome”) require cliffhangers from week to week. Mysteries are waiting to be solved. Sometimes answers lead to more questions, but that’s the fun of television as a medium: It is designed for serialization. Movies are supposed to be more structured, but that concept seems to have been chucked out an open window with “The Maze Runner.” The screen cuts to black, and the credits roll before the audience sees if the ending lives or splatters on impact. You’ll have to wait another two years to find out if it died.
The Maze Runner
Starring Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario and Will Poulter
Directed by Wes Ball