A male of unspecified age, though likely late teens, is on an elevator rapidly heading towards an unknown spot. Surrounded by animals and building supplies, he is unsure of what’s happening and proceeds to vomit. The elevator stops and light appears. He looks out of his confines to see a few dozen kids of roughly the same age staring at him from an open field.
So begins The Maze Runner, the latest adaptation of a successful young adult book series, this one by author James Dashner. It’s also the debut feature of director Wes Ball, a man who seems to have a knack for scale in terms of action. Ball displays this quickly. The aforementioned male, who eventually remembers his name to be Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), has a scene early on where he tries to flee his fellow men. He bolts it, the camera panning alongside aside him as his feet take him as fast as he can. Thomas trips up, falls flat and then realizes the immensity of his situation; walls. Walls surround him at every turn, shown by Ball slowly rotating our protagonist and giving us a sense of the weirdness Thomas is confronting. In one shot, Ball sets the table. Thomas and company are in a small, isolated confines that is bordered by gigantic stone walls
As far as a plot, The Maze Runner is rather bare bones. It’s Thomas and a bunch of Y-chromosomes of about the same age living in this tiny bit of land, none of whom have a memory of what their lives were like before or why they’re their now. Everyone has a job, from pseudo-doctor to construction worker, with an elite few running into a small opening to the outer rings of their eerie abode which unlocks each morning and closes each night. These runners search the equally concrete outer realm in hope of finding an escape. They don’t always make it back before the structure locks up at night; nobody has survived a night in the maze.
The first hour of the film is just Thomas learning about this society and, as such stories go, questioning it. There are hard and fast rules that everyone lives by to survive, but Thomas wants to do more than survive. Thomas wants to escape. His actions bring new fortunes as he goes against the grain. It also brings with it fresh dangers, death and a young woman. The tenor of it all is well pitched. It’s a sci-fi adventure rooted in easy tropes, serious in tone without stepping into somber. Despite a propensity of characters referring to events/thing as “The ______” (the maze, the glade, the etc.), the movie builds its exposition in a comfortable flow. Thomas, played with a captivating, burning determination by O’Brien, asks for further details at apt moments. When something strange pops up, he’s quick to ask. It’s perhaps not elegant, but the movie skips over lengthy info dumps too, letting the mystery hang in the air.
As Thomas eventually gets into the maze itself, Ball films it from a distance. Where many modern Hollywood filmmakers are prone to rapid cuts, close-ups and shaky-cam, Balls steps back to capture the enormity of Thomas’ surroundings. The maze’s daunting size and labyrinthine turns is, sorry for the cliché, a character in itself. This draws one into the shear insanity of it all.
As answers come, they’re a tad vague and not altogether captivating. Still, this is a handsomely presented piece of fiction. It’s exciting stuff, if shallow. B-movie fun, by no means at its best, yet worthy of a trip to the cinema.
The Maze Runner opens wide all across Seattle tomorrow.