July 14, 2015

The Maze Runner (2014)

The success of The Hunger Games in cinemas has led to a predictable flurry of young adult novel adaptations, including the Divergent books and The Fault in Our Stars. One recent attempt has been The Maze Runner, a feature adaptation of the James Dashner novel directed by Wes Ball.

An amnesiac teenager (Dylan O'Brien ) wakes up in a steel elevator rising upwards through a dimly lit shaft. At the top he finds himself in a forest glade and confronted by a large community of teenage boys - all suffering from amnesia, and all of whom arrived via the same elevator. Their glade is surrounded by an enormous shifting labyrinth full of monsters. No one knows why they are there, and no one knows how to get out.

The lack of context in The Maze Runner is one of its greatest strengths: it strips away everything but the plot and the characters, and gives the film a nice sense of momentum as the teenagers work to establish how to escape, and whether or not they dare risk it. It's also very well cast, with two notable British child actors (Will Poulter and Thomas Brodie-Sangster) demonstrating that their talent is clearly going to extend into adulthood.

It's worth getting the one big problem with the film out of the way: it adapts the first in a trilogy of novels. Viewers expecting some solid answers and a sense of closure will find the deliberate open-ended finale maddening to watch. I personally didn't have a problem with the plot structure. For one thing there's more than enough here to make the film a satisfying experience without having the answers fully spelled out. Secondly, it's one of numerous examples of a fairly new form of motion picture: the serial film. It used to be the case that Hollywood would launch a series of films with a self-contained picture, and then following it up with two-part sequels if they were successful. Nowadays the success of these films are much easier to predict, and studios feel more comfortable leading into a trilogy or more from the get-go. The Maze Runner only cost about US$35 million to produce, so it was close to a foregone conclusion that a sequel would be greenlit before this first movie was even finished. At this stage criticising a film of this style for not having a closed ending is like criticising an episode of a TV series for doing the same: the medium has moved on, and audiences need to keep up.

The cast is very strong here: there's not a weak member of the gang. I was particularly impressed with Will Poulter's performance as the hesitant, increasingly stubborn Gally. He's the closest thing the film gets to an antagonist, but for the most part you can see his point. It's only towards the end when he becomes a little desperate and unhinged, and by that point it's not difficult to see why. Thomas Brodie-Sangster is also very appealing as Newt, who acts as something of a best friend to Thomas during the film. There is an odd quirk to the film in that it features just one female character. As it's a serialised narrative it's difficult to tell whether there's a story-based reason for this, or if the film's just following a depressing industry line in marginalising female characters. To be honest a few more women in the cast would not have gone astray. Kaya Scodelario does a solid job with her part, a young woman named Theresa who appears to know Thomas, but she could have been served better by a more fully rounded character.

The film's design is simple but highly effective, with the maze giving the film a fairly constant sense of unease. The monsters inside, known as Grievers, and well designed and wonderful creepy. There's a nice stripped-back style to the film's action sequences - to the point, clearly laid out and easy to watch. The film marks the feature debut of director Wes Ball: based on what he's done here I'm rather to keen to see how his career develops.

The Maze Runner is a clearly told, broadly appealing, nicely creepy science fiction thriller. It does not do anything exceptionally original or groundbreaking, but it does its job solidly and briskly with a minimum of pretention: that's often depressingly rare among Hollywood productions.

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