I went to see The Maze Runner with no expectations. I saw a trailer two or three times in the last season that promoted this young adult (YA) dystopian sci-fi, but other than the trailers, I didn’t have prior knowledge of the film.
Dystopian flicks and novels work better this way. I like a movie I know little about.1 And if it’s in the YA category, it helps to keep an open mind and let the movie speak for itself. I’m not a young adult anymore, and sadly I’m finding it harder to relate to the fears and angst teenagers experience. However, a well-made movie can suck me into a story so that I vicariously appreciate the struggles of the characters. If Maze Runner could do this with some of the screen time, then it would be at least a moderately enjoyable viewing.And young adult dystopian films are of a genre still in the making, exploring what storytelling conventions work best for these motion pictures. Adult dystopians have been refined, yes, but young adult dystopians are relatively new. And there are different sorts. The Giver is a very different sort of dystopia than Maze Runner, in my opinion. For one, Maze Runner has a cynical outlook, but The Giver is optimistic.
Anyway, Hollywood wants you to watch more of their dystopians, since these films have financially performed so well since the Hunger Games saga began. That franchise has earned $832,678,739 (gross) with the first two films. Two more to go.
What is The Maze Runner?
The Maze Runner is the first in another trilogy (of course it is!). As of writing this review, this film in theaters has earned $75,029,215, so it has been significantly proftiable. Since the novel is the first in a trilogy, there is hope yet for this series to become an even larger pot of gold. The Scorch Trials and The Death Cure would complete the film set for 20th Century Fox.
For comparison, it will probably not reach the grand profits of Hunger Games because Maze Runner doesn’t have what it takes. It is a similar yet very different sort of story. It is more simplistic, like a video game plot. There isn’t an expansive civilization with tons of characters. The story is about one young guy trying to survive and help a few others survive a bizarre science experiment. Katniss is trying to give freedom to thousands of people, and overthrow a diabolical, tyranical government.
The direction for these films (Runner by Wes Ball and Douglas Cumming, and Games by Gary Ross) have largely different approaches as well. I was impressed and pleasantly surprised by their similarities and significant differences. If you watch Games and Runner you would see what I mean. The production quality is decent for both. The storytelling is unique for both.
The marketing budget seems to be much smaller for Runner. The studio must be happy with a smaller return on their investment? I had not heard of the novels before the film, like I had for Hunger Games. Both are best sellers, yet Runner clearly has a smaller audience as a book and film. 2*The Maze Runner* cost $34 million to make, thus it has been very profitable and the first sequel has been greenlit.
It’s another fine day on the island in Lost…
I’ll give you a premise that is as spoiler-free as possible.
Thomas (played by Dylan O’Brien) wakes up on a rickety elevator that’s moving upwards. He doesn’t have the slightest memory of his past. All he knows is that he is in a foreboding place all alone in the world.
The elevator comes to a stop at ground level in “The Glade,” a place several other teenagers besides Thomas call home. They were all delivered there via the elevator that comes up through the ground from who-knows-where. All of them know nothing about their past, just like Thomas. All of them men.
The guys (about 50 or 60 in all) build a simple, comfortable community in their Glade while some in their group explore the huge labyrinth that surrounds them on all sides. They don’t know why they are in a glade that is surrounded by a creepy maze, just that they are.
What they do know is that the maze is an unsafe place to spend the night. After dark, the walls move (yes, the mechanized walls of the maze change every night) and deadly monsters they call ‘grievers’ kill anything in sight. In three years since the first boy came up the elevator, not one of them has found an exit to the larger outside world. All they know is the incredibly limited life they experience day-after-day in the confines of The Glade.
But Thomas is curious. He isn’t content to stay in the safe zone. He believes it is transcendently important for the guys to do whatever is necessary — confront the grievers — to escape their pitiful existence. Some of the boys think Thomas is up to no good. For the great good of the group, they are afraid and want to stop Thomas before the newcomer gets them all killed.
But then, Thomas luckily kills one of the monsters. And if that weren’t enough, a teenage girl (also with no memory of her past) comes up the elevator. And if the appearance of the first girl ever weren’t enough, she came with a note that said “She is the last one ever.” Fear and confusion take hold of the misfits in The Glade as they face new life-threatening obstacles every day.
You will be a-mazed!
$30 million was well-spent on this film to make most everything visually appealing, and sometimes even stunning. I was fascinated by the layout of The Glade, a place that seemed small at times, and at other times it felt two or three times larger. It all depended on the needs of the scene, and I think this made the locations more interesting.
The actors, and I would guess their direction, are the finest qualities of the film you will probably notice. These young guys — and the one young gal — are all smart people. They are problem solvers, every one of them. They bring a lot of thoughtfulness to their team effort, even when they don’t see eye-to-eye.
Dylan O’Brien as the main man of the story, Thomas, did a good job. He is convincingly curious; looking for any solution that’s better for the guys than living in The Glade for the rest of their boring existence, worrying if the grievers will one day do the unexpected. Thomas wants to question all of the rules, especially the ones the guys think they know beyond a shadow of doubt are reliable, but don’t actually have proof to support.
Their worldview is cramped in the space of their outdoorsy prison camp without knowledge of the outside world. You would like to think that someone smart like Thomas would rise to the occasion and get them out of their misery quickly, but thankfully, Maze Runner has more nuance than that. The story is captivating thanks to the secrets and seemingly insurmountable problems that keep the thrills up. More than once I thought there’s no way out of this, which meant I was impressed when the guys took courage and overcame the seemingly impossible.
There were a few characters I honestly cared about from about the beginning of act two to the end, which is saying a lot. Any film that can vest my interests in the characters gets at least one star of merit. Characters like Alby (played by Aml Ameen, Minho (played by Ki Hong Lee, and Newt (played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster) all carried a uniquely entertaining purpose. It would have been easy for side characters to be lost in the spotlight that’s otherwise dedicated to the central characters (Thomas, Gally [played by Will Poulter], and Teresa [played by Kaya Scodelario]3) but I think directors Wes and Douglas knew that each character from the novel deserved more.
As for the tone of the film, you can’t beat Maze Runner. It carries the same gravitas that Equilibrium has, for the most part. You might not be as invested in the plot of Maze Runner, but the tension is just as high and gripping.
These grievers — ugly/horrifying monsters — are some of the strangest, perverse mechanized monsters I’ve seen. You remember that one absolutely gruesome scene in Peter Jackson’s King Kong where giant insects ravage and eat humans? The grievers of Maze Runner remind me of that, yet they are less… horrible, in spite of how awful they can be. I was ready to puke when I saw King Kong. While the grievers were also stomach-turning, they were more terrifying than they were morbid. This was a key balancing act for the delivery in this movie, and I appreciate the attention to a proper delivery.
So, generally speaking, there is a lot to entertain you in Maze Runner. It has an engaging second act, relatable characters, and enough riddles to keep you intrigued to the end.
What’s Not so A-mazing
At the end of the movie I felt a few disappointments. Every movie has there shortcomings, but Maze Runner’s were rather distinct letdowns.
The whole of the movie shows a lot of promise. There are interesting details that arise. Regrettably, the payoff for them was all over the place. Villains turned out to not be villains. Friends turned out to be villainous. The scariest problems of all? Nothing to worry about. That problem you thought nothing of? It will come out of nowhere and take out half of the teenagers with it.
And the big bad guys at the top of a conspiracy were actually not bad guys — oh, but they actually are bad guys after all. Ugh. What I’m saying is there were some baiting and switching of expectations that were not all that interesting or as important to the whole story as they were intended to be; self-important, but not important to the audience. The film introduces details in the first half, then explains what they were all about in the second half without a gripping payoff.
And the labyrinth that was so intimidating for most of the film? I thought for sure there was a fantastic explanation for it to be built in the first place. When I learned why it was built it was a huge… waste.
But the biggest letdown that diminishes the value of the film is when they introduce the cause for all of humanities problems. The basis for Maze Runner incorporates a pitiful backstory that depends on climate change.4 I would have accepted other backstories. Basing your entire sci-fi on worldwide bad weather is pathetic. Climate change isn’t ‘world-building’ for good stories. It is more like world-dissolving.
Besides these overarching weaknesses, I want to note that one character, Teresa, wasn’t given good reason to be in the movie. The character is so weak that she seems like a token female. Perhaps in the sequel, Teresa’s real significance will be brought to light? Hope is there, but as it stands for this film, it does a poor job of representing the only woman in the film.
Does it really matter? Am I making a mountain out of a molehill? It’s hard to say. But one thing is for certain: Teresa could have been edited out of Maze Runner, and the story would have the same results. Her absence would not be felt. I don’t think the film/story/novel is slamming women with some twisted agenda. This is mainly a problem with coincidental issue that’s tactless. Had Teresa been a guy, this flaw in the movie would still be true. Too bad Teresa had to be a girl, which calls attention to the flaw all the more. She doesn’t add anything to the movie.
Besides all this, the movie is fun and thrilling yet uses some action and suspense conventions that do nothing to hold your attention. Oh, that shot was lifted from one of the Jurassic Park movies, I thought to myself more than once. Even some central characters are killed like some of Star Trek’s expendable crewmen. That’s not good, because they built up characters then killed them like they didn’t really matter.
So, see this film?
If you enjoy sci-fi, action, and young adult thrillers like The Giver, Ender’s Game, and The Hunger Games, you will probably like The Maze Runner. Though at times is feels less significant and small, it still presents an entertaining premise and mystery with enough tension to keep up appearances.
If you are tired of such films or television shows, Maze Runner will disappoint you. As one older man said leaving the theater at the same showing I attended, “Booooooriiiiiiing. This is the same-ol’-same-ol’. We’ve had too many of these dystopians lately.”
I enjoyed Maze Runner for a fleeting moment, but I will probably not bother with it more than to share it with my younger siblings, who I think would enjoy it for what it’s worth: one or two viewings.
- I like a movie I know some about as well. Sometimes I read reviews before I catch a movie, or after, depending on my mood and the context of the movie I am seeing. It all depends, and sometimes knowing more (or less) improves the experience. ↩
- The Maze Runner’s production budget was about half of the first Hunger Games’ movie. For what it is worth, the movie is nearly as good in its own right, so it’s money well-spent. ↩
- Later in my review I’ll deal with Teresa some more, because she was actually the weak character among several strong ones. ↩
- Personally, I think that Earth is a very big place with highly complex weather patterns that the scientific community have yet to understand fully. Professionals have only been studying and recording weather patterns for a few decades. Supposedly, modern man knows that in the big scheme of things we are undoubtedly careening towards a catastrophe of worldwide flooding, freezing, etc. I don’t buy it because the research is weak and there are too many variables. If you aren’t looking at the right variables, you draw the wrong conclusions. The Climate change theory’s popularity doesn’t make it undeniably accurate. ↩