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Non-Review Review: The Maze Runner

The Maze Runner is a perfectly solid piece of young adult action adventure. It excels primarily as a piece of old-school science fiction, the kind layered with blunt social commentary and barely-veiled allegorical themes. The Maze Runner constructs a fascinating metaphorical maze for our heroes to explore. It works less well when it comes to making the audience care about the characters navigating it.

It's alive inside...

It’s alive inside…

It is interesting to think that young adult fictions seems to have inherited the spirit of allegory and social commentary from cult sixties science-fiction like Logan’s Run or The Planet of the Apes. Most of the glut of current young adult adaptations are high-concept science-fiction or fantasy novels that provide an effective vehicle to touch on fairly heavy and substantial themes. They can frequently be read as allegories or commentaries.

Not only do movies like Divergent or The Hunger Games offer a metaphorical trek through those tough teenage years, they also provide a healthy dose of social or political commentary – albeit inevitably tying back into the themes of identity and self-determination most associated with young adulthood. The Maze Runner feels particularly loaded with political meaning and knowing social commentary.

Far afield...

Far afield…

In some respects, it plays almost like a lost episode of The Twilight Zone, The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street by way of Lord of the Flies. The story of a community of young boys left to fend for themselves in an isolated community, they find themselves threatened by mysterious terrors lurking just beyond their borders. The world outside their little hamlet is an ever-changing maze, uncertain territory that reconfigures itself nightly in order to pose a fresh threat to the inhabitants.

There are sections of The Maze Runner that feel like they might have been lifted from a barbed fifties or sixties novel about society’s casual brutality in pursuit of homogeneity. Alby, the community’s leader, boasts that he worked hard to “establish order” after the “dark days” in recent memory. As members of the community sit together at night, they listen to the sounds of the chaotic world beyond  – the walls of the maze moving so as to trap them further, and the screeching of unholy terrors lurking in the darkness.

Children of the corn...

Children of the corn…

After one particular horrific incident rocks the fledgeling community, a reactionary voices try to assert control over the situation. It appears that the dissidents are to be banished from the community. Instead, they are fastened to poles at the gate of the maze – a ready-prepared meal for the creatures lurking within. “This isn’t exile,” we are told. “This is an offering.” We are presented with that most archetypal of science-fiction communities, the small village willing to commit unspeakable horrors in return for tranquillity.

As with the dystopian futures on display in Divergent and The Hunger Games, there is a sense that the grim futures of the fifties and sixties have returned to haunt the present. More than any time in recent memory, there is a sense of enforced consensus, of dictatorships that bind societies together through well-reasoned and carefully-articulated fear-mongering. It has been half-a-century, but it appears that we still have the same nightmares.

You've got to be kidding...

You’ve got to be kidding…

Of course, those nightmares are still relevant. One doesn’t have to try too hard to draw parallels between the high-concept plot of The Maze Runner and the world outside the film. The movie is populated with archetypes rather than characters. Will Poulter plays Gally, the strong and loud member of the community who advocates for strength in numbers – who believes that individuality is a threat to the group’s security. In contrast, Thomas Brodie-Sangster plays Newt, the more open and trusting member of the band.

Along the way, the script occasionally pauses for the sort of existential musings that one expects when you throw a bunch of teenagers together. All of the teenagers sent to this weird community have had their memories wiped. The group contemplate what they might have been, while one wonders if he can still love his parents if he doesn’t remember them. Newt offers, “It doesn’t matter who you were. It only matters who you are now, what you do now.”

Not-so-fun-run...

Not-so-fun-run…

The Maze Runner works best when dealing these sorts of archetypes, and feels a little clumsy when it comes to fleshing them out. Dylan O’Brien’s Thomas has to stretch to reach into the second dimension. The movie tries to load him with a complicated past and a hint of moral ambiguity, but it doesn’t work. Thomas isn’t written to be a compelling or intriguing protagonist like Katniss Everdeen, and O’Brien lacks the charm that helped Jennifer Lawrence and Shailene Woodley define their roles.

Indeed, The Maze Runner is most frustrating when it tries to heap mythology upon mythology. Not only is there a constantly realigning maze populated with monsters, the film also throws in a zombie-like infection. While the movie keeps the science-fiction jargon and lingo relatively low key, there is an awkward third-act info dump that is delivered like a power-point presentation. It feels like back story that doesn’t belong at this point of the film, and could probably be streamlined.

Stick with it...

Stick with it…

The movie’s second act drags significantly, because that’s where it feels like the film is going through the motions. It is easy to check off the familiar plot elements ahead of time – to chart the inevitable allegiances and revelations as they develop. The Maze Runner is a world populated with cut-outs rather than characters. While that’s effective for the purposes of allegory and commentary, it is less effective when the film has to put any weight on them

Wes Ball’s direction only emphasises this. Ball tends to like to keep the camera moving. This works well during action sequences or establishing shots, but it means he runs into problems when trying to frame characters talking. The trips into the maze are exciting and well-constructed, for all the shaky-cam and CGI. It’s the exposition around those scenes that drags, as the movie tries to interest us in the personal drama of characters who never seem like people.

Slice o' life...

Slice o’ life…

The sequences within the maze work very well. Particular credit is due to Ai-Ling Lee and the movie’s sound department for crafting an eerie and unsettling aural environment. Appropriately enough, given the movie’s themes, the world beyond the settlement frequently seems like an empty grey echo chamber – a void into which anxiety and fear just reverberate right back. Well, that and the occasional monster.

The Maze Runner is a solid young adult adaptation. It feels a little too generic in places, but only where the script calls attention to the shallow characters. The movie works best when using its characters as springboards to abstract philosophical questions, or allegorical vehicles. The Maze Runner has all the charm of a pulpy old-school high-concept science-fiction film, but never commits as well as it might.

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