If you liked the premise of Lord of the Flies but thought it was too disheartening and complex, perhaps The Maze Runner will be more palatable. Based on the first book of James Dashner’s science fiction trilogy of the same title, The Maze Runner opens with protagonist Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) in utter confusion, having had his memory wiped clean. He wakes up in a settlement called “the Glade,” where he finds that everyone is male and has had the exact same experience, namely suffering from severe amnesia and unable to provide any context to what’s happening. Unfortunately, we share in the exact same experience for the rest of the film, trapped within walls of confusion and asking ourselves “why am I here?”
The society of young men is unsurprisingly rustic but surprisingly orderly and peaceful despite their helpless entrapment within the walls of a giant labyrinth. They’re led by Alby (Aml Ameen), the eldest and wisest of this ragtag bunch of survivors. Ameen really captures the delicate poise of a man among boys who actually knows nothing more than his pupils but provides the necessary authority.
The most able-bodied of the boys, known as Runners, enter the maze to try to find a way out but (naturally) the labyrinth is full of lethal monsters. Ambitious and curious Thomas has found his calling. Instead of getting started with the action right away though, Thomas has to trudge through his share of menial tasks, befriending along the way two other boys, Newt and Chuck, portrayed by Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Blake Cooper in strong supporting roles. Their onscreen camaraderie cements the bizarre feel of the environment: the displacement of these two good-natured kids you’d expect to find down the street within this maze-prison where they are forced to grow up quickly practically defines dystopia for the audience. The movie’s premise offers a great opportunity to develop these relationships in a unique way, such as showing how innocence is hastily shed for maturity in a dystopic society. It’s just so ironic that it’s squandered away for cheap clichéd lines that actually make the entire segment seem like a high school buddy movie.
Somewhere in all this a girl suddenly appears. But what seems like a huge disturbance to fragile social order is glossed over entirely by director Wes Ball, who chooses to focus instead on the added mysteries that amnesiac Teresa is unable to answer. While it turns out she actually brings a solution to some of the boys’ problems, her presence proves merely incidental to the plot’s development.
The genre of science fiction rests delicately on suspension of disbelief; issues like gender and racial diversity tend to take a back seat to developing an alternate universe where social conventions may be modified or ignored. Maze Runners’s all-male cast might even go unnoticed if the actress playing the lone girl, Kaya Scodelario, weren’t so clearly just a pretty face to spice up the all-boys film—a token status made painfully obvious by Teresa’s lack of lines and pointless reaction shots. Ironically, Teresa’s complete irrelevance is made apparent precisely through the film’s cheesy attempts to convince us otherwise.
Refreshingly, one of the other unconventionally cast main characters actually has an impactful role. Thomas eventually gets to run the maze alongside the Asian leader of the Runners, Minho (Ki Hong Lee). The director’s portrayal of Minho doesn’t just pander to diversity either, since he gives fair treatment by showing negative and positive facets of Minho’s character. Side by side, Thomas and Minho get to explore the vast labyrinth as Wes Ball shows off, in some thrilling sequences, the film’s grander special effects. While the stark contrast of green grass growing through gray concrete is already cliché, Ball manages to utilize the tall shadows of the shifting walls to keep the chase of the tiny man escaping his colossal environment original and engaging.
It’s a pity that the maze, the only original idea in the film, doesn’t feature more prominently. Come to think of it, nothing really features prominently in this disappointing movie. The Maze Runner immediately retreats from any interesting social questions it sets up within the pastoral community of boys, like how clashing personalities might coexist within a fragile social order. A weak screenplay leaves conflicts unresolved as the storyline quickly shifts to increase our confusion like a maze of loose ends. Even the action scenes, though exciting and well-executed, are short-lived and random. The film unintentionally shows us the frustrating experience of being a Runner, finding our way through an ever-changing labyrinth, plowing on despite leaving virtually every question unanswered. While this is the first installment in what is sure to have multiple sequels, they don’t matter if we’re left stuck in the maze.
An interesting variation on the teenage dystopia genre that quickly devolves into wasted potential.