'The Maze Runner': Film Review

Managing fan expectations could turn out to be this movie’s principal challenge. 

Dylan O'Brien and Kaya Scodelario co-star in Wes Ball’s feature directing debut, a futuristic teen thriller

When Fox picked up the feature version of animator Wes Ball’s short film Ruin in 2012, the deal quickly led to the studio offering Ball The Maze Runner as his full-length directing debut. Entrusted with the first novel in author James Dashner’s futuristic series of four young adult books, Ball appears to be implementing a strategy that’s predicated more on quickly launching a film franchise than developing a substantive long-form narrative.

When The Maze Runner was published in 2009, it became a New York Times best-seller, and it’s easy to understand why: Dashner has fashioned a distinctive, if derivative, dystopian storyline that’s easily recognizable, along with archetypal characters engaged in a constant, thrilling struggle for their lives. Although the principal protagonists’ survival is never seriously in doubt, it’s threatened frequently enough to maintain interest, so with anticipation regarding the novel’s adaptation already running high, the release is likely to see substantive response from teens and Dashner’s literary fans.

Ball opens the film with Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) arriving in the Glade at the center of the Maze just like every other teen boy before him — on a freight elevator that unloads him and some meager cargo in a vast open area covered by meadows and woods that’s surrounded by massive concrete walls. Unable to remember any details from his past, he’s quickly assimilated into the makeshift society that the population of several dozen teens has created, even though all of them suffer from a similar state of trauma-induced amnesia. Alby (Aml Ameen), the first arrival, and Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) form the leadership team, and enforcer Gally (Will Poulter) provides any physical persuasion required to keep everyone in line performing their assigned tasks. Gardeners and goat herders provision the camp, craftsmen fashion shelters and tools, but the Runners get the most respect.

Every night, the Maze that surrounds the Glade shifts configuration, and every day, the Runners enter the labyrinth guided by Minho (Ki Hong Lee) to map each iteration in an ongoing quest to find a way out, but they must return to the Glade before nightfall and the emergence of the terrifying Grievers, giant spider-like biomechanical predators that patrol the Maze. After more than three years of exploration, they’re still searching for the secret to the Maze, but it takes Thomas’ unique perspective to open up new possibilities when he’s quickly promoted to Runner after helping Alby and Minho survive a night in the Maze, an unprecedented feat. 

The arrival of Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), the only girl ever sent to the Glade, upsets the delicate social order further, particularly since she appears to have some mysterious connection with Thomas, although neither can remember exactly what it might be. Thomas and Minho’s search continues to turn up more clues, including an electronic device retrieved from a slaughtered Griever that might help them unlock the Maze’s inner workings. But with Alby gravely injured in a Griever attack and Gally aggressively pushing back against any attempts to abandon the Glade, Thomas and Teresa will need to convince the other boys that a direct and strategic penetration of the Maze is their best hope for escape and survival.

The Maze Runner’s similarities to well-known literary works (Nineteen Eighty-Four and Lord of the Flies among them) and speculative fiction thrillers (Logan’s Run, Battle Royale and The Hunger Games, for instance) are almost more reassuring than disconcerting. In fact, it’s this recurrent sense of familiarity rather than any distinct originality that makes the film consistently engaging, although never outright challenging. 

This lack of narrative sophistication is exemplified by “WCKD,” the mysterious organization directed by Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson) that has trapped the kids in the Maze and consistently thwarts their attempts to discover the justification for their incarceration, making belated third-act plot revelations far more frustrating than gratifying. 

You can’t blame the kids for all the confusion, however. With most of his memories inaccessibly buried in his subconscious, Thomas becomes a bundle of instincts and impulses, dominated by a restless curiosity that O’Brien expresses rather realistically. Scodelario doesn’t figure in the action until well into the film, when she initially causes a sensation by disrupting the masculine equilibrium, but then gets quickly relegated to sidekick status. Equally lacking in backstory, most of the sizable supporting cast has scant opportunity to build character, although Brodie-Sangster and Poulter are better differentiated as Thomas’ advocate and antagonist, respectively.

Clarkson barely registers in the film’s final scenes, and Lee’s Minho character gets drastically shortchanged; a significant slip-up considering his integral role investigating the mystery of the Maze. Aside from some uneven handling of the cast, Ball competently styles the action sequences throughout the film and capitalizes on his VFX expertise with pulse-pounding scenes tracking the Runners through the Maze battling Grievers.

Whether Ball will next get the chance to put his talents toward directing Ruin or The Scorch Trials, the second novel in Dashner’s series that’s already in development at Fox, may well depend on the initial success of The Maze Runner.

Production companies: Gotham Group, Temple Hill Entertainment
Cast: Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Will Poulter, Aml Ameen, Ki Hong Lee, Blake Cooper, Dexter Darden, Patricia Clarkson
Director: Wes Ball
Screenwriters: Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers, T.S. Nowlin
Producers: Ellen Goldsmith-Vein, Wyck Godfrey, Marty Bowen, Lee Stollman
Executive producers: Joe Hartwick, Jr., Edward Gamarra, Lindsay Williams
Director of photography: Enrique Chediak
Production designer: Marc Fisichella
Costume designer: Simonetta Mariano
Editor: Dan Zimmerman
Music: John Paesano

Rated PG-13, 113 minutes