‘The Maze Runner’ stumbles but keeps moving

(20th Century Fox)

If there is one thing that’s been dominating cineplexes for the last few years, it’s superhero movies.

If there are two things, it’s superhero movies and young adult novel adaptations.

Even without the upcoming Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, the last couple of years has seen a glut of book-to-screen adaptations targeted at teens. Yet as a franchise like Hunger Games, which cleaned up in our first annual Mythies, or the standalone Fault in Our Stars have found commercial and critical success, most such properties have not fared well.

While Divergent – which veered very closely to the Hunger Games formula ­– did well enough to secure a sequel, the film adaptations of Beautiful Creatures, Vampire Academy, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones and all three parts of Atlas Shrugged (hey, it appeals to teenagers and is more of a fantasy than any of the previous movies) have proven to be more Golden Compass (anyone remember that?) than Chronicles of Narnia (the first one at least). It’s with this track record that another potential series starts with The Maze Runner. Fortunately, Maze Runner does enough with its world building and action sequences to merit wanting more.

‘The Maze Runner’ keeps the mysteries coming. (image: 20th Century Fox)

Maze Runner begins at a sprint, with the concept and base situation coming on immediately, before slowing a bit to take it all in. Although many of the individual elements are very familiar: dystopian surroundings, central character with a clear destiny thrust into unknown situation, regimented social structure, one character who for some reason hates the protagonist, just to name a few – the world itself is intriguing enough to carry the audience through the slower, more cliche bits. Luckily the film has a relatively simple premise allowing it to skip lengthy exposition and get on with the more interesting business of action and mystery.

It should be noted here that those who are tired of sci-fi/fantasy action movies should watch something else, but those who are still interested in exploring an unknown world, learning its rules and how to succeeds or fails in following those rules, will likely have fun visiting this one. In fact, by far the greatest strength of The Maze Runner is in how it offers bits of intrigue as it goes on. Sequences within the maze are fun and very well visualized. The maze itself is massive in scope and tiny in detail, with numbers and ivy-covered walls far off in the distance, especially impressive considering the film’s modest budget, and the grievers are grotesque, terrifying creatures that wouldn’t be out of place in Ridley Scott science fiction.

New story elements arrive pretty quickly and while some are typical of the genre (such as the lone female character’s bond with the lead male character), they seldom have the deus ex machina feel of Hunger Games‘s muttations or Harry Potter‘s constant stream of MacGuffins. Sure, at times they’re completely unrealistic (*vague spoiler*: those must be the strongest sticks and twigs ever), but it’s how this world works, and as long as those rules aren’t totally arbitrary, we should be able to accept them. The simple premise also allows the characters to learn about the world along with the audience, which lends a sense of immediacy, even as we know  that at least the two protagonists (Theresa and Thomas, also known as Girl and Main Guy) will come through unscathed, because, you know, sequels.

Hey it’s, umm, Girl and, uhh, Main Guy. (image: 20th Century Fox)

Yet as interesting as the world and its mystery are, most other elements are sadly lacking. Character development is pretty minimal, leaving individuals more accurately described archetypes – the leader, the little buddy, the enemy, the standout – or by a sort of diversity check list – the African American one, the Asian one, the chubby one, the British one, the girl, the main character/white guy – seemingly assembled to appeal to the tastes of as many teenage girls as possible. Conversations between these roles are so bland they appear to be cobbled together with lines from the last two years’ worth of YA adaptations. Still, it’s all serviceable as transition until the next plot element arrives to make the movie enjoyable again.

Personally, I love world building, it’s one of my favorite elements of any science fiction or fantasy story, and it’s much of the reason I enjoyed this movie. But even more than world building, I love seeing that world broken down and destroyed. Unlike many in its genre, Maze Runner doesn’t hold back on making permanent changes to its base situation. Although this could be entirely undone in the sequel with a repetition similar to Catching Fire, most of the questions we begin with are actually answered by the end. It’s unfortunate then that the coup de grace feels quite muddled and completely nonsensical. However, thematically thin and laughable as those answers may be, at least they are offered. It’s admirable as well that a film so obviously meant to be the beginning of a series isn’t afraid of pulling the trigger on its own premise. I’ll take messy risk over neat boredom any day.

mazer runner 3
For teen girls, this like a buffet… of boys who probably haven’t washed in months. (image: 20th Century Fox)

As with many other recent films, and not just those in YA adaptation genre, one’s enjoyment of Maze Runner will be contingent on one’s ability to put aside silliness and buy into the driving mystery. First movies always have a lot to do in establishing a world worth exploring while developing characters for the future and keeping the current plot interesting enough to justify the audience staying to see more of that world and those characters. Maze Runner does two of these quite well, with the third hobbling but not dragging the others back. While seldom the sprint promised in the beginning, and with a few stumbles along the way, the films ends with enough momentum to carry us into the next leg. Although not entirely novel or even logical, the world of Maze Runner is still worth exploring.

About Jess Kroll

Jess Kroll
Jess Kroll is a novelist and university professor born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and based in Daegu, South Korea. He has been writing film reviews since 2004 and has been exclusive to Pop Mythology since 2012. His novels include 'Land of Smiles' from Monsoon Books and young adult series 'The One' and 'Werewolf Council' from Epic Press.

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