By Noah Foster-Koth
Movies adapted from young adult novels have ranged from great (The Hunger Games) to terrible (Percy Jackson and the Olympians). The Maze Runner, which has been adapted from a lesser-known book by James Dashner, ranks somewhere in the middle. Director Wes Ball’s interpretation of Dashner’s story is saved from its weak script by a fast pace and great cinematography.
The film starts just after a boy named Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) has his memory erased. Thomas is dropped into an isolated forest called the Glade. There, he joins a community of young men who have been brought to the same place in equally mysterious circumstances. Their village rests in the shadow of a massive, dangerous maze, which is inhabited by ravenous, disease-spreading monsters. Some believe that the maze hides the path to freedom.
In outline the story sounds rather unique, although some of the individual components feel recycled from other, better films. The young warriors seem like they should compete in The Hunger Games, and the Maze itself is similar to Harry Potter’s Forbidden Forest. However, The Maze Runner’s gorgeous visual artistry helps it stand out amongst other films in the genre. When I say that this film is visually gorgeous, I don’t just mean that it has a ton of CGI in it (although the CGI work is also excellent). What makes The Maze Runner special is that director Wes Ball and his cinematographer have composed each shot with a painter’s eye for composition and detail. The result is that even the more mundane images, like that of two characters walking around a pond, are rendered striking and memorable. Naturally it’s a difficult effect to convey with words — you have to see it for yourself.
The Maze Runner’s greatest flaw is that none of the characters really resonate. That’s my biggest gripe with what is an otherwise well-constructed adventure movie. The problem isn’t just that the characters are all broad archetypes (the optimistic heroes, the cheerless bullies, the doe-eyed younger children). It’s that their situation is very difficult for the audience to identify with.
A key component of making likeable movie characters is to put them in situations that the audience can relate to, at least on some level. The Maze Runner has very few of these, if any. The dangers that Thomas and company find themselves in are so foreign and outlandish that you’re often too busy trying to understand what the threat is to really invest any concern in the characters.
That being said, Ball and Dashner wisely take the focus off of the characters and instead direct the audience’s attention to the plot. For the majority of its 90-minute run time, the film is coy about who built the titular maze and why. Keeping these details mysterious is a clever creative choice that builds suspense and sustains the audience’s interest. The deadly perils Thomas faces in and around the maze are more frightening the less we know about them. The audience is never given any outside information beyond what is known by Thomas and his friends, which provides at least one piece of shared experience between the audience and the characters.
Eventually the film feels compelled to offer an in-depth explanation for these mysteries, and it’s here that the story reaches its lowest point. Up until then however, The Maze Runner sustains a vibe of mystery and tension that make it feel like a feature-length episode of The Twilight Zone. In other words, it’s thrilling and disturbing in equal measure.
Give it a chance.
Grade: B +