Tuesday, September 30, 2014

"The Maze Runner" Review - More Thrilling Than Your Average YA Film But Still Unable To Achieve Greatness

On the surface, the new film The Maze Runner, which was adapted from the YA (Young-Adult) novel of the same name by author James Dashner, is yet another excuse to enroll an entire new line-up of young and nearly indistinguishable actors who must brave a very familiar looking and feeling Dystopian world. A world where their good looks and bland personalities collide in ways that only serve as a set up for a collection of preordained sequels that will undoubtedly result in final chapter that is broken up into two parts to help extend the franchise's longevity and revenue stream.

But even with all that going against it, the film still manages to be an entertaining mixture of familiar bits and pieces from other (albeit much better) films that serves as a decent stand alone experience and a satisfying spring board into the inevitable sequel. Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats: 
Projector Type: Digital 2D         
Film Rating: PG-13                     
Film Runtime: 1 hr 46 min    
Studio: 20th Century Fox

Loves: Mazes
Likes: The Hunger Games
Neutral:  The YA genre
Hates: Twilight
Why do all these movies have to...: cast someone that looks like Kristen Stewart?

Recent YA film adaptations such as The Hunger Games and Divergent have proven that when done well enough that their highly predictable and derivative nature can be counter-balanced by a decent collection of actors and an interesting premise that is executed well enough that we forget that all we are watching is an excuse to have teenagers flirt with danger and each other. Then you have other recent examples such as The Mortal Instruments, The Host and much more recently The Giver, films that have the same general formula as their more successful brethren, but were marred by being either too goofy, too stupid, too boring or worst, all of the above (hello Twilight!).

The Maze Runner falls somewhere in the middle of those examples by carrying traits from both groups. With its cast of interchangeable but competent actors, some interesting visual elements and a premise that is both fun and dangerous, which is surprisingly rare for this genre of film, director Wes Ball has created a film that should appeal to the relatively large YA fanbase as well as the harder to reach general audience members. However its failings, such as some incredibly bland and one note characters and how little the actual maze is used in the film hold it back from achieving the greatness it clearly hopes to attain.

While it is all too easy for films of this ilk to get bogged down in exposition, The Maze Runner navigates those usual pitfalls with an ease rarely seen. Right from the get go we are thrust into this mysterious world and are spoon-fed all the info needed in a relatively short amount of time. We learn that this lost boys-esque group of misfits have all, each delivered one by one every month for the past three years, been trapped in the middle of a massive maze which is only open for exploration during the day. During the night however, while everyone is safe at the center, it is not only crawling with dangerous creatures called Greavers whom nobody who has ever survived an encounter with, it also changes its configuration making it near impossible to complete it.

What lies at the end of the maze or what happens when they solve it? Those are only a couple of the the many questions that need answering before those end credits roll and despite this being a lead up to a sequel, a surprising number of those questions get answered, which unsurprisingly only leads to more questions that will likely be answered in the next film to only then lead to more questions that will be answered in the final chapter. But while it is a nice change of pace for an obvious franchise starter to answer so many questions in its first chapter, what sadly hinders the whole experience is how the greatest mystery of the film, the maze itself, is already figured out before the film even starts.

When Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) first arrives in the glade, the center woodland area of the maze, he is surrounded by others who have been working to complete the maze for three years now and while it benefits him to learn every possible secret about the maze almost immediately, it makes the rest of the film suffer as a result. There is no sense of discovery as Thomas and the others traverse the maze because Minho (Ki Hong Lee), a veteran maze runner, has it all mapped out (in great and laughably absurd detail). So when they are running down corridors and leaping over walls, they know exactly where they are going at all times making the fact that they are in a maze a moot point. The only secret that needs to be revealed by the end of the film, and the only benefit Thomas brings with him, is how to find the exit of the maze, because Reno and the others figured out how to get to the end a long time ago.

They do try to throw in some wrinkles though, such as throwing the only female character (played by Kaya Scodelario) in the film into the mix half way through to add some much needed diversity when we begin to discover that there isn't much to actually discover about this maze, but that proves to be more of a red herring or loss opportunity than anything really substantial in the end. At least the Greavers (along with their obvious Doom inspirations) provide enough thrills and chills to make the middle part of the film more exciting than it otherwise could have been.  

Despite its mishandling of the entire maze premise (we should discover it as the characters do) and the largely forgettable (but mostly adequate) cast of young adults, just about everything else works. The acting, directing and production in general are all above average enough to keep us entertained and intrigued enough to watch these kids run through a number of hallways over and over again to find out the ultimate secret behind the maze and why they have been put there.

Most of all though, it is the inherent danger around every corner that sets The Maze Runner apart from all of its peers. Knowing that there are actual consequences for someones actions that will and likely can result in a death is a surprisingly potent element that up until now only The Hunger Games ever came close to capturing. As a stand alone film it delivers enough action and intrigue to garner a recommendation but as the beginning of a franchise it shows even more promise that we unfortunately won't know if it will pay off until that sequel comes our way in another couple years


The Maze Runner won't blow you away with its bland characters or familiar themes. But what it lacks in originality (this isn't that far off from a direct "Lord of the Flies" rip-off), it more than makes up for with fun and imaginative production design and at least one exciting set piece that is almost worth the price of admission alone. It also breaks new ground for the YA genre by not being afraid to kill off any of its characters at the drop of a hat and is thankfully devoid of the dreaded romantic entanglements that usually plague these films. In the end, it adds just enough of a fresh spin on this well worn genre that helps make it stand out from the pack, and in a good way.

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