The Maze Runner leans heavily on its premise, to the detriment of individual characters, but still succeeds as one of Hollywood's better young adult adaptations.
In The Maze Runner, Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) awakens inside a moving freight elevator - with no memory of his former life. When the lift comes to a halt, he is greeted by a group of young men known as The Gladers - adolescent boys who have formed an organized society despite being trapped within the walls of an expansive and lethal maze. Led by Alby (Aml Ameen), the very first resident to appear in The Glade years ago, as well as his second in command, Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), each member of the community is assigned a job - with "Runners" taking-on the perilous responsibility of exploring and mapping the ever-changing maze (along with the dangers that wait within).
Concerned that the Gladers have become too complacent with their imprisonment, Thomas begins challenging the laws of their society - putting him in direct conflict with Gally (Will Poulter), leader of the Builders, who believes that Thomas is responsible for new threats that have put the delicate society in peril. However, when the first female Glade tenant arrives with an ominous message, Thomas, Alby, and Newt realize they can no longer wait-out their lives within the confines of the maze. The time has come to escape.
The Maze Runner was directed by freshman feature filmmaker Wes Ball - adapted from James Dashner's 2007 young adult book of the same name. Like many YA adaptations, The Maze Runner novel is only the first installment in a larger (three-part) series - meaning that while Ball's film is an intriguing (and exciting) introduction into the storyline, it also spends a significant amount of time preparing moviegoers for an already in production sequel. The film won't live up to the mass-appeal of The Hunger Games franchise, but there's no question that Maze Runner is significantly better than most young adult book-to-movie offerings - with several likable characters, thoughtful drama, as well as several engaging sci-fi ideas. Still, casual viewers who have not read the books and are simply looking for a one-off piece of entertainment may find that, in spite of quality filmmaking, The Maze Runner is short on satisfying closure - injecting more questions than answers (at least in this first chapter).
Similarly, fans of the novels will find several significant changes to the narrative - most of which were used to streamline the larger story. Nevertheless, The Maze Runner successfully captures key aspects of the source material that help differentiate it from many of its melodramatic counterparts. Most importantly, mysteries of the maze, The Glade, and the larger confrontation are all unveiled in a steady and satisfying stream - making The Maze Runner an interesting - albeit pretty undemanding - science fiction tale.
Even though Ball relies heavily on character archetypes and plot beats that audience will have seen before, the film maintains a brisk pace - where new layers of character and plot are consistently peeled back. The movie doesn't dig particularly deep but provides enough emotional threads (and commentary on complacency versus self-determination) to be more than a surface-level escape story. Thankfully, The Maze Runner also avoids the eye-rolling romance that is usually standard in the young adult genre - at least for this entry.
Dylan O'Brien leads the cast as Thomas - and the actor is a serviceable champion to rally behind. Unfortunately, given that the movie spends most of its time setting up the series mythology, along with a few minor conflicts, O'Brien isn't provided much room to explore Thomas. Ball hints at stronger material that can be mined down the line, but aside from a few hazy flashes, Thomas is a pretty blank slate; even when audiences learn more about his backstory, any revelations are quickly dismissed by the filmmakers and the onscreen characters.
Thankfully, even as supporting characters, Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Alby (Aml Ameen), Minho (Ki Hong Lee), and Chuck (Blake Cooper) are actually more interesting and rounded than Thomas. While Thomas drives the storyline, and pushes the Gladers into uncharted territory, it is actually his compatriots that keep the film grounded. Brodie-Sangster (Game of Thrones) and Cooper (a relative newcomer) are especially convincing in their roles - helping to breathe subtle humanity into a story that could easily have devolved into teenage cliches.
Will Poulter (We're the Millers) is also featured, and even though the actor does his best as Gally, little time is dedicated to developing the character beyond a stock outline - leaving no room for Gally to reflect anything particularly profound about the Gladers or Thomas. Similarly, while the arrival of Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), the first female resident of the Glade, is a major turning point in the story, the actress is rarely a focus in the onscreen drama - mostly just a plot beat with no actual arc.
Unsurprisingly, the maze is one of the more interesting characters in the story - and Ball succeeds in presenting the towering environment as both ominous and alluring (though there's little reason to spring for an IMAX upgrade). Certain action moments suffer from CGI overload, especially in wide shots of the maze, as well as frantic encounters with the Grievers (beastly creatures that search for intruders at night), but the cinematography and overall quality of the visuals prevent Ball's work from looking too budgeted. Additionally, despite the daunting sprawl of the maze, uninitiated moviegoers expecting stylized fighting and creature conflicts will likely be underwhelmed by Maze Runner's action set pieces. The film includes plenty of exciting moments but, as indicated by the title, the characters' primary defense is running - not hand-to-hand combat.
The young adult book genre is filled with uninspired and downright clumsy film adaptions - where capitalizing on an existing fan base is often more important than delivering a competent theater experience. While The Maze Runner isn't the best (or necessarily most faithful) book-to-screen adaptation, Ball makes sharp use of Dashner's source material for an entertaining sci-fi drama - albeit one that, for some, will spend too much time setting up future installments instead of fleshing-out key characters and the larger post-apocalyptic world. The Maze Runner leans heavily on its premise, to the detriment of individual characters, but still succeeds as one of Hollywood's better young adult adaptations.
The Maze Runner runs 113 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, including some disturbing images.
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