September 18, 2014

Maze Runner, The

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Maze Runner, The

ADVENTURE/SCIENCE FICTION:

United States, 2014

U.S. Release Date:

2014-09-19

Running Length:

1:53

MPAA Classification:

PG-13 (Violence, Profanity)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

2.35:1

Cast:

Dylan O'Brien, Aml Ameen, Ki Hong Lee, Blake Cooper, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Will Poulter, Kayla Scodelario

Director:

Wes Ball

Screenplay:

Noah Oppenheim and Grant Pierce Myers and T.S. Nowlin, based on the novel by James Dashner

Cinematography:

Enrique Chediak

Music:

John Paesano

U.S. Distributor:

20th Century Fox

Subtitles:

none


Despite a strong opening and riveting first 45 minutes, The Maze Runner devolves into one of the weakest post-apocalyptic Young Adult movies to reach theaters in recent years. The film's inability to sustain the energy it starts with results in a disappointing experience. The muddled final act (with inconsistent and confusing "revelations") and open-ended conclusion add to the dissatisfaction.

The Maze Runner gets off to a fantastic start and, based exclusively on its first half, looks to be a winner. Sadly, the qualities that make the film so compelling early evaporate. As the sense of mystery dissipates, so too does The Maze Runner's ability to hold the viewer's interest. The more we learn about the characters' situation, the less credible the story as a whole seems. There are some great ideas in The Maze Runner but the storyline patching them together is generic and frustrating. Worse, the movie lurches to a halt rather than having a graceful ending, forcing viewers to wait until the as-yet-unproduced sequel is available to learn the protagonists' fates. As a result, The Maze Runner fails to work as a stand-alone production. Maybe the addition of another chapter or two (there are three books in the series) will clarify the mass of incoherence that the screenplay exhibits in its final 30 minutes.

The Maze Runner opens with the arrival of Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) to a mysterious place known only as The Glade. This Lord of the Flies-inspired setting, occupied by a group of teenage boys, lies at the center of a massive maze. Escape from The Glade is thought to be impossible because the maze cannot be traversed safely at night. It changes daily and its corridors are patrolled after dark by the monstrous Grievers. The boys of The Glade have developed a primitive, functioning society in which everyone performs their assigned tasks. The leader is Alby (Aml Ameen), who has been there the longest (three years). His lieutenants are the thoughtful Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and the pugnacious Gally (Will Poulter). Thomas arrives as all boys do, with his memory wiped; he knows his name but remembers nothing else about his past. He also feels a powerful compulsion to become a maze runner - one of several boys whose job is to run through the maze during the day and map its convolutions. Circumstances in The Glade change dramatically with two events: Alby is critically injured during a maze run and Teresa (Kayla Scodelario) arrives - the first girl to come to the Glade and, according to a note she carries, the last person "ever".

The young, mostly male cast is headed by Dylan O'Brien, a heartthrob-in-the-making with a built-in fan base as a result of his role in the TV series "Teen Wolf." British actor Will Poulter, who played Eustace in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and was more recently seen in We're the Millers, understands what it takes to fashion a dislikeable character. Thomas Brodie-Sangster, another Brit (and the only one allowed to keep his accent), may be familiar to Game of Thrones fans - he played Bran Stark's companion, Jojen Reed. Kayla Scodelario, a U.K. TV regular since 2007, isn't given much to do and she certainly doesn't challenge Jennifer Lawrence for kick-ass girl dominance.

The direction, by first time feature filmmaker Wes Ball (whose background is in art and visual effects) is uneven. As one might expect, the movie looks great. The set design is impressive and the special effects, although limited, are effectively integrated. Early in the proceedings, Ball is able to generate tension. However, in a later battle between boys and monsters, shaky camera work, fast pans, and frequent cutting makes it virtually impossible to figure out what's happening. (To an extent, this approach is a result of the PG-13 rating which doesn't allow the camera to linger when there's blood and death.)

Having no familiarity with the source material (a 2007 novel by James Dashner), I can't say whether the movie's narrative missteps, of which there are many, are the result of problems in the book or the byproduct of sloppy screenwriting or editing. The explanations for various mysteries are provided through unclear exposition and other things are nonsensical (such as one character showing up in a place where he shouldn't logically be). Fox has already greenlit the sequel so we'll be given an opportunity to see where the characters go next. Perhaps a strong second installment will redeem the bad taste left by the first one.

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