With the commercial success of The Hunger Games, moviegoers have had not one (Divergent), not two (The Giver), but three YA sci-fi dystopias in the same calendar year. The third, The Maze Runner, an adaptation of John Dashner’s bestselling 2009 novel, arrives in multiplexes just as the box office begins the cyclical pivot toward adult-oriented, serious dramas of the Oscar-bait kind. Not that there isn’t room for another sci-fi dystopia. On the strength of The Maze Runner’s premise and, at least initially, execution, there just might be. Unfortunately, a weak, poorly conceived and even more poorly executed third-act payoff strongly suggests that The Maze Runner should remain a one-off film, not the first film in another unnecessary franchise or series. It’s the box office, of course, that will determine The Maze Runner’s viability as a franchise. As a standalone film, it falls far short of delivering anything that can be described as satisfying, dramatically or emotionally.
The Maze Runner opens promisingly enough, efficiently introducing the premise — a vast, complex maze, a green glade, and an all-male community — in the space of a few minutes via a simple, but no less elegant plot device: a character new to the world of the maze, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien, Teen Wolf). When Thomas wakes up, he’s surrounded by unfamiliar faces, his past erased, his name a mystery (only later does he remember his name), and a social position at the bottom of a seemingly well-ordered society ruled benevolently by one of the older members of the community, Alby (Aml Ameen). Alby and his second-in-command, Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), give Thomas — and by extension the audience — a walking tour of the maze and the tightly enforced rules of the maze society. Almost immediately, Thomas runs afoul of the community’s chief enforcer, Gally (Will Poulter), and almost as quickly, he acquires a trusting, loyal sidekick, Chuck (Blake Cooper).
Thomas’ constant questioning and rule-breaking threatens to order the maze community, but it’s not until another boy, Ben (Chris Sheffield), one of the “runners” of the title — so-called because he and another boy, Minho (Ki Hong Lee), run the maze every day, mapping every permutation (the maze changes every day, but in specific patterns — becomes ill with a mysterious illness, an impetuous decision leaves Thomas, Alby, and Minho stuck in the maze at night, and the arrival of a girl, Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), the first (and last), that the maze community begins to fracture irrevocably and Thomas becomes a de facto leader with Gally opposing him at every step and turn. When the doors to the maze don’t close at nightfall, however, the community has other, more immediate problems to address, specifically the monsters that make the maze their nighttime home.
To first-time director Wes Ball’s credit, The Maze Runner rarely gets bogged down in exposition or long dialogue scenes. He intuitively understands the demands of conventional storytelling: pacing and momentum above all. To that end, some of the lesser members of the community, including Teresa (she arrives late, does little), receive little screen time, making their inevitable exits (stage left, right, and center) all the less moving or affecting. Just because The Maze Runner is ostensibly aimed at the YA market doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a substantial body count. It does, albeit handled in PG-13 terms (i.e., mostly offscreen or via super-fast edits), including some of the secondary characters. Underwritten characters are, however, a minor problem in comparison to the inevitable, third-act payoff (or lack thereof). When a relatively new character explains the mystery of the maze in a Matrix: Reloaded-style info dump, it makes little, if any, sense. It’s also meant, of course, to set up the inevitable sequel via a wholly unsatisfying, completely unearned cliffhanger.
Despite the inevitable disappointment, The Maze Runner benefits from a uniformly strong cast. There’s a strong connection between the actors, their characters, and their performance. Credit there then to Ball, showing himself adept at handling a cast of relative newcomers, and the usually unsung casting director. Ball also deserves credit for pushing a surprisingly modest budget to its absolute limit. The Maze Runner looks like a film that costs three or even four times the reported $34 million-dollar budget. It’s only during the latter scenes when Thomas and Minho venture deep into the recesses of the maze and the action-heavy second- and third-act scenes that the CG seams begin to show (sometimes, admittedly, to the detriment to the narrative and emotional content of those specific scenes). For all of his strengths as a director, however, Ball can’t overcome the clunky, unwieldy explanation for the existence of the maze or the demands of (wannabe) franchise building.