Skip to main content

It’s not a prison. It’s a test.

The Maze Runner
(2014)

(SPOILERS) The first hour of The Maze Runner provides a set-up as arresting and intriguing as that of any mainstream movie unhindered by the label “Young Adult”. It is less overtly constricted by pandering to a niche (teen) audience, while clearly influenced by the likes of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Vincenzo Natali’s Cube. Unfortunately it is also afflicted by the curse of the J J Abrams, or more precisely Damon Lindelof. What makes it so involving cannot possible pay off.


Nevertheless, there’s good reason many greeted this as a surprising breath of fresh air in the glutted Young Adult marketplace. There were few expectations, and debut director Wes Ball does a determined job of making the movie pacey and involving on a restricted budget. Perhaps crucially, its issues are the precise opposite of 2014’s other YA franchise-starter, Divergent. There, anyone could see the set-up didn’t make a blind bit of sense from reading a brief synopsis but was quite entertaining if you could move past it. In contrast, The Maze Runner is all about the mystery. So, by the time you realise it’s very nearly as silly as that picture, it’s almost over and pushing for its sequel (it surely no coincidence that of the three credited writers, T S Nowlin, Grant Pierce Myers and Noah Oppenheim, one of them, Oppenheim, is working on one of the second Divergent sequel).


Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) wakes up in an elevator with no memory, en route for a grassy clearing in maze complex where other boys are imprisoned.  Led by the longest resident Alby (Aml Ameen) and Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) they have formed into a regimented micro-society with individually delegated set tasks. Thomas is most intrigued by the role of the maze runners, who leave the area in the morning when the entrance to the maze opens and return in the evening just before it closes.


Thomas’ arrival appears to set off ructions within the delicately maintained order of the Glade (the grassy clearing), personified by the aggression of Galley (Will Poulter), but further demonstrated when Thomas takes it upon himself to enter the maze to help Minho (Ki Hong Lee) and a wounded Alby. Just as they return (no one has ever survived a night in the maze, thanks to vicious bioelectronics guardians known as Grievers), a girl arrives by the elevator (Teresa, played by Kaya Scodelario), further upsetting the applecart.


The Maze Runner is designed as a puzzle, not just geographically but also in terms of the whys and wherefores of the place and its subjects. Thomas dreams of experiments undertaken on him, and he and Teresa remember each other’s names. The danger of this sort of deal is the one that faced Lost, just in more truncated form. The possibilities go unsatisfied by the reveal. So it is that by the time the credits roll, The Maze Runner has crossed from potentially the best YA to a merely so-so appetiser for a take-it-or-leave-it movie series. Although, since it made a lot more than Divergent for a fraction of the cost, its continuation is a no-brainer.


Newt goes to the trouble of laying out a series of rules and place markers (no one has ever gone beyond the walls, no one has ever survived a night etc.) that effectively identify Thomas as an ever popular chosen one when he surmounts them. There are also cryptic elements (“It’s called the changing” “WICKED is Good”) that are much less evocative once explained, and it’s understandable questions don’t go away.


Like, why no one can scale the walls when there are clearly vines going right the way up at least some of them (this is surely the most repeated complaint about the obvious plot holes).  Coming in a close second is that, for a movie with this title, there is very little in the way of exploring the mazes. There was a surely lot of potential for constantly changing structures and losing one’s way in the labyrinth, but it doesn’t happen. It’s all a bit linear, alas.


Mainly, though, The Maze Runner has been lacerated for affronting viewer intelligence. The reveal concerning what this is all about makes no sense. The kids are immune to a virus that decimated humanity (turning them into zombies of the 28 Days Later variety) after a solar flare devastated the Earth. They were corralled into the maze as a test, to map out their brains’ responses to the challenges within, and what makes them different. And so provide hope of a cure. Okay…


It’s all a bit tenuous, isn’t it? The classic problem of a viable concept with little means to thrash it into something satisfying and useable. The subjects are both vital and wholly expendable (project leader Ava, Patricia Clarkson, expresses surprise that so many survived). However you cut it, such as making excuses based on other tests being conducted prior to entering the maze, this precise scenario is entirely batty. The criteria and objectives won’t be clarified because nothing would satisfyingly explain them. Presumably this is also a very broad-spectrum test as, aside from the three or four runners, the lads do sweet FA aside from a spot of gardening.


There are a few decent reveals; that Thomas and Teresa were actually testers (Gally was right to be suspicious; it’s notable that his approach of safety first, not bucking the system and rule and order, is the closest the movie comes to reaching for a critical subtext beyond its mystery box), the fake-out of the terrorist attack on the facility. Others – Galley miraculously appearing having traversed the maze solo – bear as little scrutiny as the project goal. For a YA movie this is also impressively un-sentimental in killing off sympathetic characters or in unpleasant ways. The Grievers are familiar and generic, but Ball handles the maze sequences with energy and flair; it’s a shame there aren’t more tight scrapes as the close shaves are gripping when they come.


The young cast also give a good showing. The Maze Runner’s failings are purely material-based. The trio of writers should probably have forsaken more of James Dashner’s novel than they did. Dashner still seems to be banging the series out (his fifth is due next year), so perhaps he’ll digest some of the criticisms and come up with something coherent in time for finale. At least with this number of novels, provided audiences don’t get bored and the series is curtailed, there should be no need for Fox to follow the route of every other YA and split the last entry in to two. Although, the same could have also been said of Harry Potter.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

Another case of the screaming oopizootics.

Doctor Who Season 14 – Worst to Best The best Doctor Who season? In terms of general recognition and unadulterated celebration, there’s certainly a strong case to be made for Fourteen. The zenith of Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe’s plans for the series finds it relinquishing the cosy rapport of the Doctor and Sarah in favour of the less-trodden terrain of a solo adventure and underlying conflict with new companion Leela. More especially, it finds the production team finally stretching themselves conceptually after thoroughly exploring their “gothic horror” template over the course of the previous two seasons (well, mostly the previous one).

He is a brigand and a lout. Pay him no serious mention.

The Wind and the Lion (1975) (SPOILERS) John Milius called his second feature a boy’s-own adventure, on the basis of the not-so-terrified responses of one of those kidnapped by Sean Connery’s Arab Raisuli. Really, he could have been referring to himself, in all his cigar-chomping, gun-toting reactionary glory, dreaming of the days of real heroes. The Wind and the Lion rather had its thunder stolen by Jaws on release, and it’s easy to see why. As polished as the picture is, and simultaneously broad-stroke and self-aware in its politics, it’s very definitely a throwback to the pictures of yesteryear. Only without the finger-on-the-pulse contemporaneity of execution that would make Spielberg and Lucas’ genre dives so memorable in a few short years’ time.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

They literally call themselves “Decepticons”. That doesn’t set off any red flags?

Bumblebee  (2018) (SPOILERS) Bumblebee is by some distance the best Transformers movie, simply by dint of having a smattering of heart (one might argue the first Shia LaBeouf one also does, and it’s certainly significantly better than the others, but it’s still a soulless Michael Bay “machine”). Laika VP and director Travis Knight brings personality to a series that has traditionally consisted of shamelessly selling product, by way of a nostalgia piece that nods to the likes of Herbie (the original), The Iron Giant and even Robocop .

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

That’s what people call necromancer’s weather.

The Changes (1975) This adaptation of Peter Dickinson’s novel trilogy carries a degree of cult nostalgia cachet due to it being one of those more “adult” 1970s children’s serials (see also The Children of the Stones , The Owl Service ). I was too young to see it on its initial screening – or at any rate, too young to remember it – but it’s easy to see why it lingered in the minds of those who did. Well, the first episode, anyway. Not for nothing is The Changes seen as a precursor to The Survivors in the rural apocalypse sub-genre – see also the decidedly nastier No Blade of Grass – as following a fairly gripping opener, it drifts off into the realm of plodding travelogue.