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A young man (Dylan O’Brien) rises from a dark shaft below ground and emerges into the bright sunlight of what he laters learns is called the Glade. He has no memories. The large grassy and treelined plot is populated by groups of other similarly aged boys who go by the name Gladers, and have formed a tight-knit social commune with each boy taking on specific roles to sustain the small society. The boy meets the leader, an imposing but friendly teenager named Alby (Aml Ameen) who assures him that the memory loss he is experiencing will pass and that he will soon recall his name but not much else. He meets others and learns that the Glade is surrounded by an enormous wall that is the inner ring of an incredibly vast and intricate maze that, during the night, alters its pattern. No one knows why they are there, but every month for three years, a new boy arrives along with fresh supplies.
Once a day, the maze opens on the Glade and the boys have created a group of specialized members to enter the expanse and try to explore it, mapping it as best they can. These ‘Maze Runners’ risk their lives not only because if they don’t return before dark, the maze could potentially strand them forever, but inside the maze resides a host of nightmare creatures called Grievers, who are massive spider-like, robotic/organic monsters that patrol the corridors and kill anything they catch.
As promised, the boy eventually does remember that his name is Thomas, and befriends Alby and the Maze Runners. His curiosity makes him a natural contender to join the group and one day, when Alby and another runner are late returning from the maze, it becomes clear that Alby is in danger when they are seen struggling to make it to the exit. As the massive maze doors begin to close, it’s pretty clear Alby and Minjo (Ki Hong Lee) will be trapped. But then, suddenly, Thomas unexpectedly leaps into the closing maze. What his actions mean, change everything.
Directed by Wes Bell, The Maze Runner is an adaptation of the young adult book of the same name written by James Dashner and is another in the recent trend of young people in a dystopian or apocalyptic world trying to survive as older people cause them trouble. The premise is strong and, while the science is spotty concerning a solar flare that somehow creates a deadly virus called, well, the Flare, the sci-fi elements are not really the draw. The attractive young cast is full of mostly unknowns but do a good job with what they are given. The weakness is the script and, while the target audience is perhaps more interested in the spectacle and story rather than dialog, the inconsistencies and awkward plotting make it often a frustrating experience as the writers work far too hard to keep things mysterious, coyly avoiding direct answers and worse, not letting characters ask the obvious questions in order to keep the audience in a state of purposeful confusion.
That said, the symbolism and metaphors are pretty well-established and easy to see as the story is a parable of those stumbling, ungainly years when teenagers grow to adolescence. The “birth” from the hole in the ground to the exploratory years in the Glade to the shifting dangerous world of the maze beyond and the monsters that cause the “changing”; all these are subtle enough but not lost on viewers. The introduction of a single female into the group, with the ambiguous note “She is the last one ever” is a disappointingly un-utilized wild card in this mix that goes absolutely nowhere when it should have (as it was even set-up to be) been the real moment of change. Instead, as the writers avoided every hint of sexuality or even smack of romance, she (Kaya Scodelario) obligatorily becomes one of the gang and is barely heard from again, arriving too late in the story and left so underdeveloped she doesn’t even matter. The film is full of missed opportunities like this, but does have it’s strong points as well and is sure to please the audience it is intended for. And like every movie, it has one great moment.
After Thomas learns that the maze changes every night and is filled with mysterious monsters whose sting can transform you, the lure of the maze somehow becomes more intriguing. Knowing what’s out there and finding a way out of where he and the others seem trapped becomes all he can think about. The Runners take it upon themselves to spend the day tracking the changes and trying to learn how the interior is shifting, memorizing it and then keeping records. They are building a massive scaled-down version to better understand the layout and hope to anticipate and or recognize patterns. The Runners are strong and fast and one day, Minho and Alby are late returning and as has been said, no one survives a night in the maze. As the group stand at the large opening of the maze anticipating the duo’s arrival, Thomas is up front and notices them first. Alby is injured and Minho is desperately dragging him to the gate. Thomas realizes there is no way they can make, so after a split second of thinking, he leaps between the closing doors and joins the two Runners, leaving a frightened and panicked group of boys behind.
Minho is shocked but quickly tells Thomas the situation and they begin to make plans to secure Alby and attempt to find a safe place to hide out for the night. Using a length of rope, they hoist their leader up along the top of one wall with his body hidden in the dense foliage encrusting the dark, damp corridors. This also provides some limited protection for themselves, though when the first Griever arrives, it sends a chill through Thomas. The creature is very large, looks like a robotic spider, and aggressively hunts the boys. Thomas evades attacks throughout, despite some very close calls, and manages to lure the beast into a shifting section of the maze and traps it with two closing partitions, which eventually crushes and kills it. The next morning, when the doors open again, there is Thomas, Minho and Alby, much to the surprise and joy of the other boys, though one of them is not entirely pleased with the news.
This moment is all about establishing the story’s hero. With Thomas in a learning and discovery role for the first half of the film, now we see the character make the transition to leader, but more importantly, the achiever. He does something that none has done before and solidifies himself as a person that can be trusted and looked upon to be their savior. It also firmly sets up the divide between the two growing factions within the clan. Some want to remain in the comfort of the Glade, content with the farming and rustic lifestyle they’ve built, welcoming a balance between themselves and the creatures beyond the wall. Up to this point, a boy named Gally (Will Poulter), who is this group’s strongest proponent, has been tough on Thomas, recognizing his curiosity and eagerness for answers as a sign of possible disruption to the life he’s helped create. With the killing of a Griever, Thomas has upset the balance.
By not only surviving the night inside the maze, something no other boy has been able to do, but also dispatching one of the monsters that patrols the maze, Thomas moves to the next level and from here, shifts to the story’s focus, earning the right to be the leader (and become film’s proper protagonist). The incident is made all the more impactful as we learn what Thomas may have been a part of before arriving in the Glade, and his role in the situation each of the boys have been subject too. While the film isn’t able to keep the momentum of this angle as well as it should, and the third act crumbles under its own weight as it strives only to be a precursor for the next film in the series, this maze moment is energetic and exciting as last, the hero makes his stand.
*Note: When are we going to get a film where a character like Chuck (Blake Cooper) can be anything more than what he is sadly written to be? Imagine if the roles were switched and it was he who led the way. Same film? Same success?