“The Maze Runner”
20th Century Fox
1 hour 53 minutes
So much in the way of fantasy fiction owes a huge debt to Rod Serling and “The Twilight Zone.” Sure, Serling was mining short fiction of the thirties and forties, but the quirky, clever, punchy format of his television show influenced a generation of writers that came after. Short fiction, however, has gone out of style of late, publishers and readers showing preference for the ever-present multi-volume series, ala “Harry Potter,” “The Hunger Games” and anything with Percy Jackson in the title. Unfortunately, the sharp, punchy quality of an episode of “Twilight Zone” rarely translates to a story that spans 1,000 pages or more. As a result, even the good series, like “Hunger Games,” tend to get burdened with over complicated plot points. This week’s adventure, which I broke down and decided to go see despite last week’s assertion that I wouldn’t, “The Maze Runner” comes from one of the not-so-good YA trilogies. I had fairly low expectations for the film, but this one surprised me, if only a little.
Based on the first few fifteen minutes or so, you’d swear that “Maze Runner” has the perfect “Twilight Zone” plot. A teenage boy abruptly awakes to find himself in a cage-like elevator speeding upward at a rapid clip. With no memory of who he is and how he got where he is, the cage comes crashing to a stop, and a set of large metal doors open to reveal a sunny glade, a crowd of rough-looking boys, and huge, 100-foot high walls of stone surrounding them on all sides. It’s a great set-up, and the more you find out the more mysterious it all seems. None of the boys knows their origins, only their name which comes back to them after a day or two. The stone walls move to open up into a giant maze, the purpose of which is also completely unknown. The boys are given enough to survive, and one new recruit a month, and that’s it. Our newest boy, Thomas, is different somehow, though. Plagued with dreams that seem to suggest a sinister past, Thomas seems destined to buck up against the ruling authority of the glade. He wants to venture into the maze, when to do so is expressly forbidden to anyone but the “runners” – the strongest and fastest of the boys who search the maze for way out by day. No one goes into the maze at night for fear of running across one of the “grievers” – hideous machines clothed in grotesque flesh and programmed to kill anything they come across. There are many dangers in the glade, but up until Thomas’ arrival, things seemed to have settled into a state of tranquility. Now everything was going to change.
Much like a magic trick, the more you know about how the mystery is achieved, the less cool it seems. “The Maze Runner” keeps up the tension and manages to avoid many of the pitfalls of the books, but eventually we have to get the big reveal – the secret behind the maze – and just like in the books, I found it to be a letdown. I won’t spoil it, but the twist manages to be cumbersome, difficult to understand, and nonsensical at the same time. I was pleased to see that the film jettisons many of the elements of the book that I found tiresome and irritating, such as the strange “glader” dialect, as well as a cliché telepathy subplot that I found completely unnecessary. But, since the entire structure that the next two entries in the series, “The Scorch Trials” and “The Death Cure” are based on depends on the big twist, I suppose it was too much to hope the filmmakers could have found a way around that, too.
I will say that, despite not particularly buying the final answer to the riddle, it was satisfying to at least have it answered in a timely manner, unlike, say, watching the long-running “Lost,” which merely succeeded in piling up so many mysteries it was impossible to answer them all. “The Maze Runner” feels a little like “Lost” at times, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Director Wes Ball, depending on solid performances from a mostly unknown cast, manages to elevate some fairly mediocre material and turns in a pretty entertaining evening at the movies. It’s not a game changer, nor is it going to elevate it’s stars, ala “Hunger Games” or “Twilight” to super-stardom, but it should prove to be financially successful enough to finish out the series, which is a victory in itself. My advice: don’t go in expecting too much, and “The Maze Runner” may surprise you, too. Grade: B-
“The Maze Runner” is rated PG-13 for mild language and some fairly scary monster violence.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.