The Maze Runner stays the course

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First Posted: 9/22/2014

If I was making “The Hunger Games”, it would have been very different. It would have starred Paul Giamatti and the late Joan Rivers and instead of revolving around a dystopian blood sport, the movie would have been about the pair trying and failing to land an unmanned spaceship as they get trapped in a whirlwind of erotic discovery (it would have been very, very explicit. Boobs and butts and beebos and everything).

Why am I telling you this? I want you to know that I am not the audience for young adult fiction or film adaptations of young adult fiction. People stopped knocking the clarinet case out of my hands several years ago. Young toughs no longer dump my Magic: The Gathering cards into the toilet. The desire to retreat into a mystical kingdom of enchantment where I’m really good at wands/arrows/wearing a promise ring has faded. I need you to understand that my opinion of “The Maze Runner” is filtered through years of cynicism, unhappiness and bitterness. What I’m going to tell you about this movie needs to be taken, not with a grain of salt, but the whole shaker. Are you ready? Batten down your brain hatches because here it comes: I liked “The Maze Runner”.

Of course, part of the reason why I liked “The Maze Runner” is that it avoids the pitfalls of movies that are based on young adult fiction. There is no love triangle, teen angst is kept to a bare minimum and it doesn’t remind you of another, better film that was made in Japan several years ago. In fact, “The Maze Runner” distinguishes itself from its peers early on with an opening sequence that finds a panicked, amnesiac (Dylan O’Brien) vomiting through the grates of a service elevator as monstrous faces growl at him from the darkness. After that bleak start, the film quickly becomes more unsentimental as the elevator transports O’Brien to The Glade a prison-like commune populated exclusively by teenaged boys. Like O’Brien, the other residents of The Glade have no memory of their past nor are they sure why they’re there. The only way out is through an ever-changing labyrinth that is home to a species of spider-like cyborgs called Grievers.

Playing like “The Lord of the Flies” if it was reworked into an episode of “The Prisoner”, “The Maze Runner” is a solid sci-fi thriller with a central mystery that is consistently engaging. First time director Wes Ball ensures that the film moves quickly and isn’t bogged down by any unnecessary sub-plots or B-stories. Additionally, Ball coaxes compelling performances from his teenaged cast. Particularly Will Poulter (best known as that kid from “We’re the Millers” who gets bit on the testicles by a spider) who gives a nuanced take on his inflexible and somewhat pitiable character and Kaya Scodelario whose haunted appearance seems to hint at a sinister past.

However, even though “The Maze Runner” rejects most of the familiar elements of young adult fiction, there is one element the film stubbornly retains – “The Maze Runner” is intended to be a part of a long-running franchise. Be forewarned that “The Maze Runner’s” ending is severely anticlimactic mainly because the film’s big reveal isn’t very revealing. It’s merely setting up a sequel and slapping down its audiences expectations with a big ol’ ‘to be continued’ sign. On the plus side, the ending does give the audience the joyfully subversive gift of watching a surprise guest star calmly put a gun to their head and pull the trigger, but it’s too little too late. Still, for the most part, “The Maze Runner” is a pleasant surprise. It’s a well-written and entertaining slice young adult pulp fiction that outdraws “The Hunger Games”, out-sparkles “Twilight” and outwits “Infinite Jest” (thirteen-year-olds like David Foster Wallace, right?)