THE MAZE RUNNER
At last I can say what I have been thinking for quite some time, ever since I sat through the first season of Teen Wolf.
Dylan O'Brien is one of the best young actors around, and if he continues to choose wisely (and even on occasion, unwisely, given he was one of the few bright spots in The Internship), O'Brien will find he cracked my Future Legends list should I revisit it. The Maze Runner combines action with depth, and had me fascinated as how it threw mystery upon mystery at me. Moreover, I was so surprised at how well O'Brien handled his first real leading role that I constantly found myself wondering, 'With Dylan O'Brien around, why do we need Logan Lerman?'
A young disoriented man is sent to a seemingly pastoral place. He doesn't know where or why or even who he is at first. He discovers that once a month, a new boy is sent there, and soon he remembers his name: Thomas (O'Brien). This community of 'lost boys' is headed by Alby (Aml Ameen), who was the first boy sent. There are others who are leaders like the tough Gally (Will Poulter) and the more gentle Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster). Thomas quickly learns that they are all trapped in a maze, one that opens every day but which not only closes at night, but one where if you are outside the Glades when they close, no one ever survives in. To map out the area, there are what they call Runners, among them the generally quiet Minho (Ki Hong Lee) and Ben (Chris Sheffield). Another youngster, Chuck (Blake Cooper) is too young to be a Runner, and more or less both looks up to and looks after Thomas.
In the few days Thomas is there, though, we find that he is different than those that came before. He is curious about the maze and more importantly wants out, while almost everyone else prefers the safety of the Glades rather than risk dying out in the maze. One time, circumstances bring both Thomas and Minho to be outside the maze, and they do the impossible: they live to tell the tale. Gally is becoming more and more agitated about the breakdown of their society thanks to Thomas, but Alby, stung by the Grievers (monsters that are in the maze) is in no position to help.
Things become more complicated when someone new arrives long before their scheduled appearance. Not only is this person early, but it is something that has not come before: a girl. Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) has a message in her hand: She's the last one, ever! While her presence doesn't upset the natural order of things (young men being not interested in sex), Thomas still finds himself remembering odd things, things involving Teresa, and things that may help them escape. Gally leads a revolution to keep what order he can, especially after the maze gates are not closed one night and the Grievers devastate the community. However, a group of them, with Thomas as reluctant leader, manages to lead a counter-revolution and insist on leaving. They do make it to a literal exit from the maze, but there are casualties, with one or two more twists thrown at us.
We also get the opening to a sequel.
Normally, I detest having films almost not end with such a suggestion, but given that The Maze Runner is the first in a trilogy of books by James Dasher I don't object. This is the newest adaptation of teen dystopian novels (which appear to be the rage) and it isn't even the sole entry this year (with both The Giver and upcoming Mockingjay Part One heading our way). However, I think The Maze Runner is the best so far and frankly prefer it to all the Hunger Games films (which appear beloved by critics and readers, though not by me).
There are good reasons for this. First, there is simply no romantic subplot to intrude on our tale. The Maze Runner is pretty much action, and even Teresa's appearance is one where the idea of having her and Thomas hook up doesn't appear to exist. From the moment director Wes Ball throws us into the story, letting the noises and darkness fill us with that sense of dread and danger, the action rarely lets up. There are some moments of calm and even some moments of character development (Chuck's longing for the parents he doesn't remember and his story are extremely moving). However, by and large we get one action scene after the other, as these kids continuously struggle to stay alive in a world they do not understand.
Second, we have really good performances from the young cast. Of particular note is Dylan O'Brien. Those of us who know him from Teen Wolf will be surprised that he can play a more mature and less comic character than his Stiles Stilinski, who is so goofy and at least in the beginning the comic relief to the supernatural goings-on. Scodelario doesn't have much screen time, but she makes the most of it as this girl who is genuinely confused about what she is doing there but who is as strong and capable of defending herself as anyone else. Poulter is effective as Gally, who isn't evil but whose motivations, while conflicting with those of Thomas and his allies, are based on trying to keep order and protect those around him. Cooper is the lightness in The Maze Runner, but his moments show that Chuck is also just a kid who loves and who deserved better.
Finally, we have an interesting and involving story that piles mysteries upon mysteries, each of them either being answered or leading us to a surprising conclusion. The special effects were effective and visually impressive (and moreover, were relevant to the plot), and while John Paesano's score sometimes was rather noticeable, I found myself both enjoying the music and finding it worked to set the mood be it action or suspense.
If I find any real fault in The Maze Runner (and they are minor) is that we go through so much that sometimes some of the minor characters who go with Thomas and Teresa (talk about T & T) get lost in the shuffle. Hopefully they will have greater roles in the upcoming sequels. Also, the ending(s) may be a bit much to take, with one big twist after another coming at us so soon we run the risk of rejecting the logic of it. Certainly the last moments with Gally seem a bit out of place, and the 'the adults are dead/not dead' business seems like a bit too much.
Again, these are minor points that did not take away from my enjoyment of the film. I found The Maze Runner to be exciting, remarkably intelligent, and held by some really strong performances, especially by Dylan O'Brien, who I hope with this series becomes a real breakout star. The big teen dystopian films like The Hunger Games and Divergent series have had female leads, and it's good to show young girls that they are capable of being strong and capable leaders. However, The Maze Runner is not afraid to let boys play again in the world of teen-centered action films, and of having a group work together rather than leaving it almost all up to one person. We have a great group of actors (of both genders and many races, a big plus for me) and I for one am looking forward to the sequel.
And for someone who generally eyes sequels with suspicion, that is the most amazing thing of all...