Thomas (Dylan O'Brien, The Internship) wakes up in a moving elevator. He knows his name, but little else about his past. The elevator reaches its destination, a hatch door opens, and Thomas finds himself surrounded by a few dozen teenage boys. They help him out of the elevator. Thomas sees that he's in a large, grassy field, and begins to panic. He runs. He trips and falls. The other boys laugh. Thomas surveys his surroundings, and sees that the field is surrounded by massive walls. This is a prison of some sort, but how did he get here? Why is he here? Who are all these other guys?
I like the fact that The Maze Runner just throws us into the action without bothering to explain much of anything. The film is yet another attempt to cash in on the popularity of The Hunger Games, but unlike the first film in that series, The Maze Runner doesn't spend the bulk of its first act trying to explain how its dark version of the future operates. Instead, it establishes the very nature of its world as a mystery to be solved. I'm half-convinced that the grand scheme (only a fraction of which is revealed by the film's conclusion) is all kinds of ridiculous, but the uncertainty The Maze Runner offers successfully prevents us from spending the whole film thinking about how unconvincing its world is (I'm looking at you, Divergent).
After he gets his bearings, Thomas realizes that there's an opening in one of the walls. The other boys inform him that it's the entrance to a large maze, and that the maze supposedly leads to freedom. It stays open all day, but closes at night. So why isn't everybody currently trying to work their way through the maze? It seems that horrible creatures known as "grievers" enter the maze at night, and no one has successfully managed to find the exit in a single day. If you don't get back to the field before the maze door closes, you won't survive the night. As such, a group of particularly intelligent, athletic kids have been designated as "runners," and devote themselves to mapping the maze during the day. Unfortunately, the maze design changes every night, meaning that the runners are essentially starting from scratch each day. They've been working on it for three years now, and haven't had a bit of luck.
Setting aside questions about why someone would want to make a bunch of teenage boys navigate an impossible maze, the premise of The Maze Runner has a certain basic appeal. It feels like the sort of larger-than-life scenario a child working his way through a simple playground maze might concoct, and helmer Wes Ball (a vfx artist making his directorial debut) turns the maze-running sequences into tense, absorbing bursts of action. The encounters with the grievers (basically giant cyborg spiders) are messy and frantic struggles for survival, and I like the fact that the film never turns any of the boys into action heroes. These kids are brave, but they're just kids, and their survival is almost always the result of luck and inelegant ferocity.
Back in the field, the film struggles to avoid dullness. Part of this is due the fact that Thomas is a fairly uninteresting central character; a vanilla Chosen One whose only significant trait is his uncanny ability to make progress in areas where the rest of the guys have stalled out. The film frequently insinuates that he's supposed to be special/exceptional/important in some way, but the writing never really backs that up in a way that makes him a better protagonist. It should be noted that O'Brien (who vaguely resembles a young Mark Wahlberg) seems to be a competent actor, but his primary task is to look handsome and athletic enough to put on a poster.
The Maze Runner also seems timid about exploring the probable consequences of the world it creates. Forcing a bunch of desperate teenage boys to form their own society would likely produce a great deal of chaos, but everything seems remarkably stable and organized under the circumstances. Before the film's halfway point, a teenage girl (Kaya Scodelario, Skins) arrives. She's basically treated as just another one of the guys, which is certainly a positive thing but not a particularly convincing one. I realize that this is a film aimed at younger viewers, but the constant orderliness at the expense of reality feels a little patronizing after a while.
The film is intended as the beginning of an ongoing franchise, and it feels like it: it has an ending that would satisfy as the conclusion to an episode of television, but would prove infuriating if this were a standalone film. The final fifteen minutes or so are a little bonkers, featuring the film's only prominent adult actor delivering a monologue that offers a few details about why the boys have been required to spend years navigating a deadly maze. The sequel promises to take things into even sillier territory (with a subtitle like The Scorch Trials, how could it not?), but I'd be lying if I said I was entirely disinterested. The grand reveal of the villain's master plan will probably be disappointing, but it certainly isn't predictable. That's something, I guess.
The Maze Runner
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 113 minutes
Release Year: 2014