Silver Screen: The Maze Runner ***
At this point, you can’t even really be sure it’s Friday unless another big-screen adaptation of a grim, dystopian young-adult novel has been thrown into theaters to battle for precious resources in an already overcrowded arena of competitors— much as you might find in the plot of one of these grim, dystopian young-adult novels.
In case you’re not keeping track of how the world is being destroyed, thus totally making teenagers’ lives uncool and complicating their romances, here are the possibilities. There’s alien invasion (The Host), demon invasion (The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones), nuclear war (How I Live Now), tyrannical governments (The Hunger Games), overprotective governments (The Giver), and a mystery war followed by the total bummer of being told what job you have to take (Divergent).
Now add to that: Big, giant, scary mazes.
The destruction of society as we know it really has become ho-hum, so credit where credit is due to The Maze Runner for at least temporarily distinguishing itself with a tight focus on storytelling and a lack of needless special-effects flourishes and pandering adornments in the form of pretty dresses, getting tattoos with the cool kids, and an overabundance of potential sexual partners. The high concept of The Maze Runner is pretty much Lord of the Flies meets the puzzle from the back of your Denny’s placemat. No word yet on whether the sequels will include The Word Searcher or Kid Who Must Find Five Differences Between These Two Pictures.
Thomas (Teen Wolf’s Dylan O’Brien) awakens with no memories save for his name. He’s in the middle of a sunny, verdant clearing in a wooded area surrounded on all sides by a massive concrete maze that stretches hundreds of feet into the sky and as far out as anyone can see. Coolheaded leader Alby (Aml Ameen) has established a small society of boys in the clearing. Each month for three years a mysterious elevator has arisen from the ground with a fresh batch of supplies and a new recruit.
Thomas quickly learns the rules of the society, which is surprisingly peaceful considering it consists entirely of hormone-ravaged teen boys. They divide themselves into groups to perform communal tasks to make their space in the clearing more habitable— they’ve even invented games and home-brewed booze— while an elite team of explorers set out each day to search the maze for an exit. Every night at sundown the maze doors close, and no one caught in the labyrinth overnight has lived to tell the tale.
The boys’ bizarre routine is interrupted by the unscheduled arrival of— gasp— a girl (Kaya Scodelario)! She pops up in the elevator hatch with one more load of supplies and an ominous note reading “This is the last one.” Soon the society splits into factions. Gally (Will Poulter) wants to hunker down and fortify their home in the clearing, while Thomas tries to convince head maze-runner Minho (Ki Hong Lee) and others to lead one final mission into the maze to find escape.
The Maze Runner benefits from being the first installment in a series in a nearly perfect inversion of the way similar films struggle with the same position. Both Divergent and the first Hunger Games were front-loaded with exposition and labored to work in the elaborate backstory explaining their particular dystopian settings. Instead The Maze Runner narrows its focus to a single mystery: What is this maze, and how in the hell do we get out of it? The characters are all defined by their relationship to the maze and reactions to their shared plight. A more complex mythology is hinted at, but the boys’ isolation prevents it from being a factor— yet.
The overarching storyline might well suffer the same fate as Lost, one of the most frustrating TV series of the modern era. Lost enticed viewers with a beguiling high concept and a series of intriguing mini-mysteries, but the story began to fray when the creators attempted to answer questions and reconcile strange, seemingly disparate plotlines. Similarly, the final ten minutes of The Maze Runner hint at a significantly broader, loopier, vastly more complicated tale, one that seems both too familiar and likely to collapse into sci-fi absurdity. This particular installment benefits greatly from holding back that information, but the storytellers (director Wes Ball, working from a committee-written script adapting James Dashner’s books) can only remain coy for so long. In the sequel they may discover what the makers of Lost and scores of other genre writers have learned the hard way: It’s much easier to create a puzzle than it is to fashion a satisfying solution.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.