The Maze Runner (2014)
Maze Runner is yet another dystopian sci-fi film based on a young adult novel series, this time from author James Dashner. The story follows a group of teenage boys who mysteriously find themselves fighting for survival in a wooded area where the only way out is through what appears to be an unsolvable maze. Essentially, we’re watching a take on Lord of the Flies (meets Lost, meets Cube, meets Hunger Games, with a dash of the Allegory of the Cave thrown in), but with the usual YA light sci-fi/post-apocalyptic overtones.
The movie opens with a teen named Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) waking up in a freight elevator with no recollection of who he is or how he got there. When the elevator gets to the top, Thomas finds himself out in the woods, where a group of jeering boys are there to greet him. Thomas’ first instinct is to run away as fast as he can, but when he sees giant walls in every direction, he realizes there’s no way out.
He then meets the leader of the group, Alby (Aml Ameen), who gives him a tour of the area, called the Glade, and explains that all the boys here are in the same situation: They woke up in the freight elevator with no memory of who they are or how they got there. Every month, a new boy is brought up by the elevator, along with more food and supplies. But Alby assures Thomas that within a few days, he’ll remember his own name.
Another boy named Gally (Will Poulter) takes an instant dislike to Thomas, and will obviously be this movie’s main antagonist. That night, the two have a wrestling match (hey, kids have got to do something for entertainment without internet or cell phones) where Thomas hits his head, and just as Alby predicted, he suddenly remembers his name.
But there are other memories locked away in his brain: Thomas has dreams about being in a laboratory where he’s constantly told that “Wicked is good”, and he sees the face of a girl who’s about the same age as him.
The next day, Thomas notices a tunnel that appears to lead outside, but his attempt to simply walk out of the Glade is foiled when he’s tackled by Gally. At that exact moment, a strong wind blows and the tunnel seals itself shut.
Gally says he just saved Thomas’ life, for beyond the Glade lies a large maze, and no one has survived a night in the maze, mostly due to deadly creatures called the “Grievers” who come out at night (and I have to wonder why “if you walk into that tunnel, you’ll die” wasn’t part of Alby’s first-day orientation spiel). But a handful of the boys are Maze Runners, led by Minho (Ki Hong Lee), who venture out during the day to map the maze and look for a way out. So far, however, they’ve had no success.
Thomas immediately wants to be a Maze Runner, but he’s given menial tasks instead. That’s when he’s attacked by one of the Maze Runners, who keeps yelling that this is all Thomas’ fault and Thomas is responsible for them all being here (plot point!). But Alby concludes the Runner is delirious because he’s been “stung” by a Griever and is apparently beyond help. So come nightfall, they force him out into the maze and let the Grievers take care of him.
The next day, Alby wants to go out into the maze and investigate the spot where the other Runner was stung. But then it gets to be sunset, and everyone panics because Alby hasn’t come back yet. Just as the maze doors are closing, the group spots Minho dragging an unconscious Alby behind him. Impulsively, Thomas runs to help them, making it through just as the maze doors close behind him.
Minho congratulates Thomas on sealing his fate, but Thomas refuses to give up. That night in the maze, they encounter a Griever, which turns out to be a giant scorpion-like machine-monster hybrid. But the maze is made up of walls that constantly move and shift around, and of course Thomas is the first person to ever think of crushing a Griever between two walls. When day rolls around again, they investigate the Griever’s corpse, and pull out a cylindrical device that bears the logo “W.C.K.D.”, along with an LED screen displaying the number 7.
They retrieve the extremely ill Alby and bring him back to the Glade. Shortly after, the freight elevator comes back up, but this time, it’s carrying a girl (Kaya Scodelario) previously seen in Thomas’ flashbacks. She’s unconscious, and she has a note in her hand saying “She’s the last one ever”, which freaks everyone out. Unlike the others, she remembers her name is Teresa, and she’s soon barricaded herself up in a lookout tower and will only talk to Thomas.
Despite knowing his name, Teresa doesn’t recognize him, but he’s able to calm her down. She reveals she has two vials of an unknown substance that also bear the “W.C.K.D.” logo, and this is when they both remember that “wicked is good”, or rather, “W.C.K.D. is good”. Thomas decides to try injecting one of these into Alby, because why not, right? Luckily, it restores his health.
Minho then reveals to Thomas that the entire maze has already been mapped out, and they know there’s no way out, but they’ve been keeping this a secret from the others. (How did they map out the entire maze if the walls move around at night? No clue.) Minho has a scale model of the maze in one of the tents, and each section is numbered. They eventually figure out the “7” on the device refers to section 7 of the maze, and if the Griever came from there, that might be the way out after all.
But that night, the maze doors don’t close, and the Glade is attacked by rampaging Grievers. Alby dies, but a small group survives, and they find themselves divided over who to follow: Gally, who wants to stay the course and keep following Alby’s rules, or Thomas, who wants to keep trying to escape at all costs. Then Thomas suddenly remembers being in a lab and witnessing all of the other boys being sent to the Glade, which doesn’t exactly help his case.
Nevertheless, a small group consisting of Minho and Teresa and a few others decide to go with Thomas’ plan. They follow him through the maze to section 7, where they’re attacked by more Grievers, with a few of them making the expected noble sacrifices. They finally discover an exit, but what lies beyond isn’t at all what they expected. They find themselves in a research facility, which is littered with the bloody corpses of white-coated lab workers.
Stepping up to a console, they watch a video message from the leader of the facility, Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson). She explains that the world outside has been destroyed by a major calamity called the “Flare”. She’s part of the World Catastrophe Killzone Department (W.C.K.D. for short) which is exposing kids to “tests” like the Glade which will somehow help them find a… cure… or something. Unfortunately, the world is against them, and in the background of the recording, we see the facility being stormed by soldiers. Ava finishes up her video by shooting herself in the head.
Just as they’re about to leave the building, Gally shows up with a gun, planning to shoot Thomas, but Minho spears him in the chest. That’s when another group of soldiers break into the facility, and whisk all the kids onto helicopters bound for a safe location. And then we get the final stinger, where Ava is still alive. She wipes the fake blood from her head and tells a group of faceless extras that the maze was a success and everything is going according to plan.
When it comes to YA adaptations, Maze Runner rates a solid “meh”. It’s way better than the Twilight movies and The Mortal Instruments, and a bit better than other recent dystopian efforts like The Giver and Divergent, but it’s still lacking. While the movie is pretty fast-paced and relatively short, it raises a ton of questions and decides to end on a cliffhanger without explaining anything.
What’s the Flare? Is it a natural disaster? A disease? An alien attack? How does trapping a bunch of boys in a campground for years on end help to resolve/cure/fight the Flare? How is Thomas involved? What’s the relationship between Thomas and Teresa? Why build a maze? And why would the same people that built the maze also build giant killing machines to massacre the boys? Are we just watching a project set up by a bunch of scientists who have lost their minds? The movie gives us answers to exactly none of these questions. And here I thought the ending of Lost was a gyp.
On the plus side, Maze Runner manages to skip the love story that seems to be mandatory for any YA adaptation these days. Of course, I’m not foolish enough to think the sequel(s) will be devoid of romance. With the introduction of Teresa, the only female in the Glade, I’m sure at least one, if not all, of the survivors will be pining away for her in the next movie.
But it’s hard to say who we’re supposed to be looking forward to seeing in those sequels. Thomas and Teresa are bland non-entities, and most of the characters that show a glimmer of personality are knocked off as soon as possible. And it’s fairly easy to predict who’s going to die and who’s going to make it out. Let’s just say that any time someone hands over an important item or token to someone else, they’re probably not long for this world.
Despite a total non-ending, Maze Runner isn’t a complete waste of time; There’s some decent action and an okay storyline. But it cops out in the same way as most other teen dystopian films, in that everyone seems to be pretty comfortable despite living in post-apocalyptic conditions, and we never get into the nitty-gritty of what life would really be like in the Glade. For the most part, it looks like the boys are staying at a pretty cool summer camp.
Overall, Maze Runner doesn’t seem to be about much of anything, other than setting up the rest of the series, with no real interest in presenting a compelling, self-contained story. But unlike other teen-centric franchises that fell by the wayside, at least this one had moderate success at the box office and we’ll actually see those sequels, starting with this fall’s The Scorch Trials. Maybe it’ll make sitting through this initial entry feel worthwhile, but I’m not counting on it.
[—This review contains additional material by Dr. Winston O’Boogie.]