“The Maze Runner”: Deftly Defying Genre

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. OK. So there’s this teenage person in a post-apocalyptic Earth. And they find out — get this — that they’re the only one who can bring down a oppressive global regime because…of reasons. There’s probably a love triangle at some point. Oh, and maybe even an imperious, possibly evil older person is behind it all. If that all sounds “been there, done that”, it’s understandable. It also means that you may find The Maze Runner to be a refreshing change from the staid young-adult sci-fi template we’ve all come to expect.

On the surface, there’s not much to differentiate Runner from fellow young-adult series adaptations The Hunger Games and Divergent. The setting is an unspecified future, following some kind of catastrophe, and centered on a handful of survivors. But it’s the details and the colors used that make the series stand out and break away from its literary cliches.

Our lead character is Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), who wakes up to find himself in a forested place called the Glade with several dozen other young men. Like them, Thomas knows nothing of his past other than his name . The Gladers have a primitive, tribal kind-of society, much of it centered on a gigantic maze whose entrance dominates the landscape. Designated “runners” traverse the maze during the day hoping to find a way out, making it home before nightfall, when huge bio-mechanical, scorpion-like monsters called Grievers roam the halls, which themselves shift and move during the night.

But that isn’t the true conflict of the film. Thomas decides to break the rules of the fragile Glade society to find a way out, and his presence in and of itself seems to disrupt the harmony that the boys have set up. Things get even more complicated when a girl arrives in the Glade for the first time. Calling herself Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), she seems to know Thomas.

Honestly, watching the power struggles and infighting within the Glade is a more interesting film than the primary plot. As this is the first film in a series (based on the first book in a series), the question of whether or not they’ll make it through the maze is settled before the film begins. The more interesting part is how Thomas gets through the maze and what he finds on the other side.

First-time director Wes Ball wisely focuses most of the film on this very topic, and it’s microcosmic viewpoint is a welcome change to the relatively enormous scope of its contemporaries. For most of the film, we’re never sure what exactly happened to land the kids in the Glade, although we’re sure it was probably Really Bad (although genre-savvy viewers might be able to figure it out). And frankly, it’s better that way. We get to learn much more about the characters than we might otherwise, since we’re not as concerned with how they fit in to the dystopian landscape and more concerned with their immediate survival. Ball also severely downplays the novel’s more fantastical elements — like Thomas and Teresa communicating telepathically or the Glade being an enclosed dome with artificial weather — that make the film feel many times more organic than it otherwise might.

There is nothing on the outset marking Thomas as the Super Special Marty Stu, which is also a bit of a welcome change. Of course, there must be something different about him if he’s the one to cause things to change, but for most of the film, he’s just another one of the kids. In fact, none of the characters seem all that atypical. Some might be more athletic, some might be smarter, but they all seem like fairly average teenagers. That makes them more relatable, and it helps sell the setting well, but by the same token, few of them have personalities that stand out. Part of this can be hand-waved by the fact that they’re all suffering amnesia and don’t know who they were prior to their time in the Glade, but only so much. Aside from O’Brien and Scodelario, only a few performances go the extra distance: Thomas Brodie-Sangster as the Glade’s second-in-command Newt and Will Poulter as Gally, the Glade’s brute squad, who has no love for Thomas.

The film does have some problems that show that for all the things that Ball does right for his first feature film, there are still a few things he has to learn. The film proceeds at a good, even pace, escalating at just the right speed until the third act arrives, and things start going turbo. It feels like at least 45 minutes of film crammed into 30, with a narrative pile-up of plot twist after plot twist after plot twist. Some of that is subverted in the film’s last scene, with yet another twist that’s delivered at just the right speed and force. It still doesn’t get rid of the whiplash pain the sped-up final act delivers.

The biggest twist, though, is that The Maze Runner feels at times like a PG-13 version of the film version Resident Evil crossed with Lost, with a little bit of Aliens thrown in. In a field of young-adult fiction that relies heavily on cliches and Big Messages about Big Things, Runner is a welcome change of pace that subverts more cliches than it adheres to. At times, it even feels like its own creature, wholly removed from its antecedents. Of course, the big question is if this will continue for the next two films or if the franchise will succumb to the trope-traps of its genre. Ball’s given the film a good head start, so I would say that the odds are ever in his favor.

Oh, crap. I got that mixed up, didn’t I? And I was doing so well.

FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B