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Maze Runner, The

D: Wes Ball / 113m

Cast: Dylan O’Brien, Aml Ameen, Ki Hong Lee, Blake Cooper, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Will Poulter, Kaya Scodelario, Dexter Darden, Chris Sheffield, Patricia Clarkson

Thomas (O’Brien) wakes in a rapidly ascending elevator that deposits him in a glade inhabited by other boys of a similar age to himself. He has no idea why he’s there, and he can’t remember anything that happened before waking. Scared, he attempts to run but soon discovers the glade is surrounded on all sides by a huge wall. The group’s leader, Alby (Ameen) explains their situation: no one knows why they’re there, a new member arrives each month with supplies, and the wall opens each day to reveal a maze that may or may not provide a way out of the glade altogether.

Thomas is given a job to do like everyone else, but he keeps looking to the maze and has thoughts of escaping. He wants to be a maze runner, someone who goes into the maze each day and maps its twists and turns. When one of the group, Ben (Sheffield), is stung by a creature known as a Griever (and which lives in the maze), he becomes violent and attacks Thomas. With no cure available, he’s forced into the maze at sunset; in effect it’s a death sentence as no runner still in the maze when it closes at the end of the day has ever returned.

Alby decides to enter the maze the next day and find out what happened to Ben. He enters with lead runner Minho (Lee) but they don’t reappear until just as the wall closes, and Alby is injured, having been stung by a Griever. Thomas rushes in to help them and the wall closes behind him, leaving the three of them trapped. Night falls and they find themselves hunted by a Griever, a huge spider-like creature. Thomas succeeds in killing it, and they return to the glade. While Alby remains unconscious, the elevator returns. In it is a girl, Teresa (Scodelario); she carries a note that states “She’s the last one ever.”

Another glader, Gally (Poulter) calls for Thomas to be punished as he’s brought danger to the group. But Newt (Brodie-Sangster), Alby’s second-in-command sees merit in Thomas’s actions and makes him a runner. The next day Thomas, Minho and some of the other boys go into the maze where they discover the corpse of the Griever contains an electronic device with a display showing the number 7. Minho explains that the maze consists of different sections and when the Griever attacked them, number 7 was open. With this knowledge, Minho believes they can use the device to help them escape the maze. A further trip inside the maze reveals a sewer opening that leads to the outside but time runs out before it can be opened and they return to the glade where Teresa is now awake. She and Thomas share brief memories of their lives before the glade, and she reveals she has two syringes. They use one on Alby and he recovers. And then the wall opens and Grievers come spilling out…

THE MAZE RUNNER

Along with superhero movies, and Paranormal Activity-style shockers, the current trend for dystopian teen sci-fi seems unlikely to abate any time soon, and with The Maze Runner another (potentially) long-running movie series is born – a sequel, Maze Runner: Scorch Trials, will be with us in 2015, and as of 2016 there will be three further novels that could be adapted. On the one hand, Hollywood’s commitment to literary adaptations is to be applauded, but on the other, is yet another foray into a world where specially chosen teens are the central protagonists really what audiences are looking for?

Well, as it turns out, the answer is yes, and particularly in the case of The Maze Runner. Outperforming its two main rivals, Divergent and The Giver at this year’s box office, the movie has garnered a strong following allied with mostly positive reviews. With the future of the franchise seemingly secured, the question still remains: is this a story compelling enough to warrant our commitment over the next few years?

Predictably, the answer is yes and no. Where The Maze Runner scores highly is in its look and feel, a mix of the pastoral and the mechanical that keeps the movie visually interesting throughout. It’s a combination that works most effectively when the Grievers invade the glade, their rapacious presence exposing the frailty of the society the boys have built up. It’s also highly transgressive, the lurking threat made all too real, despite what the boys believe they know already. As a set piece, it’s incredibly effective, and solidifies the danger the boys face in trying to escape.

And the movie needs the Grievers because without them, this would be The Lord of the Flies without the angst or the grim brutality. There’s also problems with the basic set up, as the script asks us to accept that a group of teenage boys, stranded in a glade for up to three years, will all agree to cooperate with each other and create a benevolent social order. It’s an unlikely, and not entirely convincing conceit, and one that is compounded by the need for the wall to open at all. While there is a reason for the boys to have access to the maze, viewers may be wondering why that’s the case if the boys have established such a utopian existence. That something is going on outside the glade is obvious, but even when the why for everything is (partially) revealed at the movie’s end it still doesn’t make sense.

With the plot suffering from a case of constructus awkwardus, The Maze Runner also isn’t helped by its perfunctory characterisations – Thomas is the rebel, Alby the patrician leader, Gally the blinkered thug, Teresa the aloof female – and some trite dialogue (“Be careful. Don’t die.”). But the maze itself is an impressive creation, and the movie picks up every time the boys venture inside it, its crushing walls and huge metal plates that can trap and isolate working like a device dreamt up by a crazed Heath Robinson.

The cast provide serviceable performances, held back as they are by the lack of fully rounded characters, and even Poulter can’t do much with his role, leaving it difficult to root for anyone in particular. Clarkson pops up in a role that’s similar to those played elsewhere by the likes of Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Kate Winslet, but isn’t given enough to make more than a fleeting impact. Behind the camera, Ball directs competently enough but without displaying too much in the way of flair, and relies heavily on Enrique Chediak’s cinematography and Marc Fisichella’s production design.

Rating: 6/10 – unable to overcome the shortcomings of the source material (or in some cases, even address them), The Maze Runner falls short of reaching its full potential; uneven but visually arresting, it’s dystopian sci-fi with plenty of ideas but none that resonate too far beyond the movie’s own environs.