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'The Maze Runner' Gets YA (Partially) Right

The Maze Runner reminds us that an interesting idea, told well, can trump any number of artistic or aesthetic issues.

The Maze Runner

Director: Wes Ball
Cast: Dylan O'Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Will Poulter, Ki Hong Lee
Rated: PG-13
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Year: 2014
US release date: 2014-09-19

Fans of the book are going to be flummoxed. Instead of a faithful adaptation of James Dashner's successful 2009 novel, the makers of The Maze Runner have decided to par away the wheat from the shaft, creating a compelling dystopian "what if?" that may not answer every question it proposes, but certainly gets significant mileage out of the premise presented.

There's a lot to digest initially, with sci-fi babble names for certain elements and a real revisionist Lord of the Flies vibe to the ambiguous adolescent male community being carved out of this unusual circumstance. But once first time feature filmmaker Wes Ball dispenses with all the set-up, we are left with an inherently intriguing idea, to wit -- what's behind those massive walls, what is "the maze", who created it, and what are those awful noises the kids hear howling through the night.

In order to understand The Maze Runner you have to understand it's world and the players within. For the last three years or so, a place called The Glade has been inhabited by a steady stream of adolescent boys. Instead of going feral, they have forged a relatively stable society.

Their leader, Alby (Aml Ameen) has set down a set of rules which his muscle, Gally (Will Poulter) and his brains, Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) execute with able efficiency. Surrounding their rustic village is a huge concrete barricade, with a complex, ever-changing maze within. Runners, as they are called, spend every day mapping out the trap, only to return the next to see the configuration altered.

No one goes in the maze at night. Mechanical monsters known as Grievers guard the labyrinth, their sting an almost certain death sentence for anyone unlucky enough to meet up with one. Everything is going along (as planned) when Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) shows up. The Glade senses his arrival changes things, and sure enough, a skilled Runner is stung. In daylight.

Then a girl, a first for the community, named Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) shows up. Soon, the entire purpose of the group shifts. Thomas believes he can find a way out of the maze while Gally complains that his rebelliousness is threatening them all. He may be right.

To give away any more does a disservice to The Maze Runner. One of the best parts of this obvious origin story is discovery the various pitfalls and permutations of the Glade community and the equally intriguing puzzle just past the barrier. In fact, the film could have removed a bit of the middle act exposition and explanation and simply given us more maze.

The sequences within this impressive CG setting are electrifying, filled with the kind of wide-eyed wonder and action sequence suspense the rest of the movie is missing. That doesn't mean the non-Runner parts are uninvolving. It's just, when you have something as epic as a constantly changing mechanical trap, the scope sweeps you up.

We also grow curious. What do Thomas and Theresa know that everyone else doesn't? What do those frequently flashbacks to a medical/science lab mean? Why does everyone seem to recognize the newcomers and yet they appear oblivious to such acknowledgment?

As the questions build, we become part of the Glade, wondering how we would react to the situation as well as how able we would be to survive. Granted, some of the material is manipulated (a goofy little dork character named Chuck is the prototypical doomed fat kid) and heavily borrowed from within the subgenre, but you can't deny that it works.

Where The Maze Runner suffers is in the overall series strategy. Again, this is an origin story, one that will be used for an entirely new situation once the ending arrives. We won't be staying in the Glade, won't have to worry about the Grievers, and perhaps most disappointingly, will never explore the maze again. Whatever scenarios the sequels have going for them, they probably won't be able to match the over the top spectacle of watching human beings interact with massive, shifting concrete barricades.

Indeed, one fears that this is a great initial idea (ala The Matrix) that then had to be spread out over a few more volumes to help profit seeker pad the bottom line. There's also the underlying realization that those cast today to play the characters as they stand may have a harder time dealing with the needs of the mandatory movie follow-ups (there are two more books, and a prequel, available).

Ball brings enough to the mix to guarantee his involvement later on, but for the most part, The Maze Runner seems to stand alone. The story just doesn't seem to lend itself easily to a "to be continued..." concept (the odd ending appears to prove this).

There's also no message here, no metaphor that we can use to pinpoint the connection with our contemporary mindset. Almost all successful dystopian dramas seem to spin an allegory or two towards the audience, hoping that they see the similarities between the real world and the fictional. But all possible purpose appears to have been leached out of the narrative (if it was ever there in the first place).

Thomas doesn't represent anything. Neither does Teresa. They are just pawns in a plan that, even when explained, seems poorly organized (especially when you consider the facility designed to explore it). Even the potential "people turning on each other" idea explored by William Golding in Flies is purposefully avoided here. We learn, almost upfront, that there will be no Piggys or Jack Meridew's here.

Again, lovers of the book will be baffled by some of the changes made here while those who long for more maze will also feel slighted. Still, The Maze Runner reminds us that an interesting idea, told well, can trump any number of artistic or aesthetic issues. While Thomas and Teresa may have a hard time overthrowing Katniss and Peeta as our preferred YA heroes, their story is just unique enough to keep us interested...at least, until the second half showcases its strategies.


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