It’s undeniable there are some surface similarities between The Maze Runner and others in the sci-fi fantasy genre; dystopian future, social commentary, one mysteriously powerful kid who flips the balance of power. Been there, done that, right? Not so; with its focus on a contentious male-dominated society and a continuously thrilling mystery in the vein of Lost (the early seasons, anyway), The Maze Runner is an impressive start to what could be an even better franchise.
Based on James Dashner’s bestselling books and directed by first-time feature helmer Wes Ball, the film gets your heart racing right from the very first moment. In pitch darkness we hear what sounds like gears of an elevator shaft, followed by the introduction of Thomas (Dylan O’Brien of MTV’s Teen Wolf) as he wakes up in a cramped freight with no memory how he got there.
“Rise and shine, greenie.” is the unwelcome greeting he receives from Gally (Will Poulter), who muscles him out of the transport and into a giant greenland known as the Glade. There are other boys in the same predicament; stuck in this place with no idea how they arrived or how to leave. And it’s a veritable Rainbow Coalition of ethnicities, too, another nice change-of-pace. The leader, Alby (Alm Ameen), takes charge of showing Thomas around, seconded by Newt (Game of Thrones‘ Thomas Sangster). The Gladers, as they call themselves, have set up their own little community in this place, each with their own jobs. The toughest job is also the most dangerous, belonging to the Runners. The Glade is surrounded by a gigantic, shifting maze of which there seems to be no escape. It’s the Runners’ job; led by the speedy and brave Minho (Ki Hong Lee) to map the maze, but only if they can survive the Grievers, spidery creatures that stalk the labyrinth.
The premise established, Ball and screenwriter Noah Oppenheimer (also a writer on the Divergent movies, coincidentally) set about building tension amongst the group. This being a community built purely of testosterone, conflict begins almost immediately upon Thomas’ arrival. While everyone else is content to merely endure their predicament, Thomas starts asking the questions they’ve all tried to forget. His bending of the rules puts him at odds with Gally, who fights to maintain the status quo. When the elevator arrives unexpectedly and drops off Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), the first girl ever in the Glade, it only signals more trouble on the horizon.
Refreshingly, the introduction of a female into the mix does not mean we’re treated to the typical “love triangle” nonsense. At no point is Teresa torn between two guys, pining for their attention. The focus is solely on getting out of the maze, figuring out why they’re in the Glade, and what makes Thomas so special. In one pulse-pounding sequence he gets trapped in the maze along with Alby and Kinho, helping them do the unthinkable and survive overnight. The Grievers, which look like the spiders from Lord of the Rings, are a constant and dangerous threat. But the biggest danger is the maze itself, made of giant concrete walls and metallic blades that transform at a moment’s notice. Ball built his career with the short film, Ruin, and the visual expertise he showed on that is brought to brilliant display in his feature debut. The Maze Runner isn’t flashy but Ball makes the Glade a believably intimidating place, part Lord of the Flies with a touch of The Hunger Games. Even though we know Thomas isn’t taking a dirt nap any time soon, a good job is done establishing the others so that when some of them die (and many do) we feel the impact.
Those who have never seen MTV’s Teen Wolf may be caught unawares by O’Brien but he brings an edge to the role of Thomas. He’s surrounded by a cast full of either unknowns or those taking on new challenges. Poulter, who is still probably best known for playing nerdy wimps in The Chronicles of Narnia and We’re the Millers, bulks up and makes for a believable bully as Gally. Ameen exudes confidence and will probably find he’s getting a lot of Hollywood attention after this and the same goes for Hong Lee who has real presence despite limited screen time. Scodelario, who was breathtakingly good in Wuthering Heights just a couple of years ago, doesn’t get much to do as Teresa. It’s likely her role will take on greater importance future movies but for now she’s little more than an important background character. As far as veteran actors go, Patricia Clarkson appears in brief flashbacks as Ava Paige, whose role is best left for audiences to discover themselves. Unfortunately, her every appearance signals the movie’s one big weakness. It doesn’t take long to figure out who Paige is and what she has to do with the Glade. The revealing of answers could have been handled much better, but to be fair that’s a problem The Maze Runner’s peers also have.
What works for The Hunger Games, other than having a star like Jennifer Lawrence, is the detailed building of a complex, believable world. The Maze Runner may only take place in one small corner of a much larger apocalyptic society, but it’s just as elaborate and full of great characters that we’ll want to see again in the sequel, The Scorch Trials.