Young adult (YA) fiction is without a doubt among the most popular of genres in the current entertainment marketplace. People of all ages, not merely the core demographic of youngsters at which it is aimed, enjoy sticking their head in a book or gluing their eyes to the onscreen tale of some teen’s coming-of-age, a dystopian future, or a soapy story of first loves and hearts breaking. Part of the genre’s rise in popularity is its easy accessibility; nearly everyone can relate to the almost always semi-universal themes, and the reading level is generally not beyond anyone of regular intelligence’s comprehension.
But as with anything, the quality can vary greatly. For every brilliant, modern-day masterpiece like Harry Potter, there are scads of copycats and lesser forms of entertainment like the Divergent series.
While not quite as imitative or bland as Divergent, The Maze Runner falls on the lesser end of the scale, both in breadth, execution, and creativity. The story is not interesting enough to pull its audience through to the end, at which point it finally begins to shine a light of intrigue, however, after having muddled through up to that point, there is little desire on behalf of the audience left to really invest any further into what appears to be a confounding nuisance when all is said and done.
Based on the James Dashner novel of the same name, The Maze Runner, directed by the fledgling filmmaker Wes Ball, is a story about a boy, unnamed at first, who finds himself thrashed into consciousness (after having been mysteriously knocked out) in a cage, raised up into an enclosed, forested land of other boys, all of whom around 17 years of age, and none of whom remembering who they were before they too found themselves in this land, memories wiped, and purposes for existence unclear.
All of the boys have a sense of duty, of purpose, which they have found in their time of survival in the Glade (the land in which they are living). With a heaping cupful of Lord of the Flies, more than a dash of The Hunger Games, and a teaspoon of The Truman Show, there is a voyeuristic element to the story that immediately sets in. Everything about the Glade seems to be not quite right, not quite one with the actual organic world, (despite the ostensibly natural vegetation surrounding them), and certainly not boundless.
The Glade is surrounded by a vast maze; the access to which opens each morning and closes every night. During the daylight, a select group of the seemingly stronger, older boys (called runners) journey throughout the maze, mapping it, and taking note of its trails, pathways, and various hazards, all the while, trying to avoid the spider-like mechanical machine monsters that hunt them down. The maze changes daily, so the job is ongoing and consistently taxing, unpredictable, and dangerous. If any of the runners do not make it back to the Glade before the portal closes at nightfall, they are—from the past experience of the remaining boys alive to tell about it—never seen or heard from again. The point of the runners, presumably, is to discover a way out; both the Glade and the maze are limited in scope. One of the runners, Minho (Ki Hong Lee), describes that in his experience, there is a border he reaches, (no matter which way he goes), and that every pathway of the maze eventually leads to a dead end. There is a map the boys have created from their daily discovery, and it essentially shows the square-shaped Glade amidst a circular maze that cuts off all around, like a dome.
The story is told through the lens of the unnamed boy, (who, semi-spoiler alert, later “remembers” his name is “Thomas” (Dylan O’Brien) in a sort of test that the other boys put him through, coaxing the memory of his name out of him through force, threats almost). Thomas is as blank a canvas as any lead in such a tale, where the audience is presumed (nay, expected) to relate to him on some level, in order to buy into the world through which he leads them. Unlike the complex, dynamic, and fascinatingly complicated Katniss Everdeen, (the champion of The Hunger Games series), Thomas possesses not a small fraction of Katniss’s labyrinthine interiority, and, apart from the lack of depth of the character himself, that is perhaps in no small part due to the vacuity of actor Dylan O’Brien, whose onscreen presence is about as engaging as a rainy day on summer vacation.
Blame cannot entirely be placed on O’Brien; he’s young, and he is still honing his craft. Who knows, maybe one day he will graduate to more intriguing roles that set him apart from his peers. And honestly, he’s not terrible. But as it stands, there is a missed opportunity in this present film. One of the boys, Alby (Aml Ameen) is a stronger, more interesting, and a frankly more fully-rounded portrayal of a person due to Ameen’s obviously higher level of natural talent. There is culturally uncomfortable difficulty in the inescapable feeling that Thomas is rather the protagonist because he is white, and having a non-white lead character in a YA story would hamper the success of the potentially huge moneymaking powers of a new franchise. Perhaps this is not the thinking behind the decision, (and one would hope that it is not), but nevertheless, the thought percolates as one is viewing the film, and it’s not a pleasant musing.
In any case, much can be said about the diverse cultural representation within the film beyond its protagonist. It has definitely gone beyond “the one black friend” stereotype, and the black, Asian, and other minority characters are, as previously stated, in some cases, the more interesting of the lot. So it’s not as though there had been any kind of blind eye turned on race in the casting call; it just still leaves desire in the main character to see full equality. That said, such a story does not require such diversity for diversity’s sake; however, in the world that is created, there is no story-specific reason why there would not be diversity, thus, it is important then to represent what would in fact be, rather than to present bias.
On an equally intriguing note, there are no girls in the bulk of the story, save one. This, obviously, is story-specific and done for a reason. Without wishing to reveal to much of her relevance to the story, it is obviously something set up as quite an important idea, so much shall not be said beyond that. But it is quite an interesting decision on behalf of Dashner to create such a testosterone-laden tale, and when she finally shows up, it must be said that her presence is met with great welcome from the audience, and intrigue, curiosity, and mistrust from the boys.
Another female in the story, (again, apologies for cryptic speak, but there are many ways in which the story withholds information until revealing it in particularly specific ways, which should not be spoiled), is one who appears to be on the outside of the world. Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson, adding some much-needed depth of character to the story) appears as a sort of overlord, (potentially evil? Who knows?!), and her presence is heavy, to say the least, menacing almost. Showing up near the end of the film, this is the aforementioned bright spot that calls for some level of interest in a sequel—if for no other reason than merely to see where she fits into everything previously outlaid.
But it’s not about cultural representation or racially charged, trendsetting bellwethers. It is a story like any other story. It is not in large part original, but let’s be realistic, it’s 2014, what is? The Maze Runner is not by any means the worst film of the year or even close (let us all never forget Hercules). But maybe it’s just setting a bad taste in the mouth, in light of certain recent ideas surrounding culture, and the lack of real, solid, grown-up entertainment, of which New York Times critic A.O. Scott mourns the loss. Perhaps or perhaps not…regardless, it does not add very much to the pantheon of stories, and will eventually, inevitably be laid to rest alongside other non-movers that have come and gone; for Harry Potter it is not, ladies and gentlemen—but then, nothing is!