Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Maze Runner / *** (PG-13)

Thomas: Dylan O’Brien
Gally: Will Poulter
Newt: Thomas Brodie-Sangster
Teresa: Kaya Scodelario
Alby: Aml Ameen
Minho: Ki Hong Lee
Chuck: Blake Cooper
Ava Paige: Patricia Clarkson

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Wes Ball. Written by Noah Oppenheim and Grant Pierce Myers and T.S. Nowlin. Based on the novel by James Dashner. Running time: 113 min. Rated PG-13 (for thematic elements and intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, including some disturbing images).

It must be a great time to be a developing reader. It seems the young adult fantasy/sci-fi/horror literature genre is gong through some sort of renaissance of late, if the movie adaptations are any indication. In truth, there have been a great number of romances and dramas to come out of young adult literature of late as well. As I get older I find it harder to get excited about these films, but I would imagine were I reading the material that inspires them, I’d be very excited about them. As Toby Maguire complained this past week, it seems young adult novel adaptations and superhero movies are the only options left in film for young performers.

Well, the latest entry of a YA adaptation is the sci-fi adventure/mystery “The Maze Runner”. It’s a surprisingly uncompromising mystery with strong performances by a cast of young actors, who promise incredible careers. The film is in some ways a throwback to such classics as “Lord of the Flies” yet contains the energy of a “Hunger Games”. I can’t really say whether the science fiction of it holds up because it is the first in a larger trilogy and ends without resolution.

We meet Thomas, although he doesn’t know that’s his name at the time, as he ascends on some sort of industrial facility elevator. He reaches the top to discover a group of teens living in an enclosed field and forest, known as The Glade. High walls surround the rather small patch of land inhabited by these children boarding on men. There are no women. Thomas is told everyone arrives the same way every 30 days, on the elevator with no memory. Their names are the only details that ever return to their memory. None of them know where they are or why they are there.

Alby is the leader of the group. He and his second, Newt, orient the newbies. Gally isn’t quick to befriend Thomas, acting as the enforcer of the set of rules the little society has established. Thomas learns that there are different job sects that each of the residents fall into. Some are builders, some are farmers, some are enforcers, and a select few are referred to as runners. The walls that surround the encampment have doors that remain open during the day, although no one is allowed to go out them other than the runners. The runners return before dusk. No one has ever survived a night outside the walls. On the other side is a massive maze that changes shape daily and is roamed at night by deadly organic/mechanical beasts known as Grievers.

It is the arrival of Thomas, however, that brings about major changes to the way of life in The Glade. Thomas remembers his name much faster than anyone before him. A runner is stung by a Griever in broad daylight. And, only a few days after Thomas arrives, the first female resident of the Glade arrives with a note that says she will be the last. Of course, many of the residents who have been in the Glade for some time are ready to blame Thomas for events going bad. The truth is, since he has little memory beyond his name, Thomas doesn’t know the changes aren’t his fault. It seems the only way to find out the truth is to leave the Glade and navigate the giant maze.

There are two elements that director Wes Ball and his screenwriters excel at—suspense and mystery. The movie never tips its hat as to just what is really going on in this scenario. Even once the film is over the mystery hasn’t been solved; all we know is that nothing is what it seemed. Ball is also quite adept at utilizing the murkiness of the set up to build upon the tension held within the Glade itself. There’s a sense with all of the captives that they know something very dark is a work behind the scenes. Some are content to embrace their existence in The Glade, while others’ curiosity can’t allow them to be contained.

Ball doesn’t over use the Grievers, either. In a lesser movie, most of the action would consist of menacing shots of the Grievers juxtaposed with images of the teens quaking in the dark. While there certainly is some of that, these are ambitious characters, unwilling to wait for the enemy to come to them. In their defiance, the action becomes about discovering why they are there more so than how, or even if, they will escape the fate offered by the Grievers.

If anything, it’s the lack of answers that holds this installment back. Like the different chapters of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, it is all too obvious that this is only part of a much greater story. Frankly, neither the audience nor the characters know anything more about why they are in the Glade at the end of the movie than they did in the beginning. The characters might think they’ve discovered something at the end, but the audience knows only that they don’t.

However slighted I might feel by unlocking none of the mysteries behind this story at the end, I am all that more excited to see future installments of the series. I’m also very excited to see this talented cast once again. Will Poulter, who was the only memorable aspect of “Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader”, is a particularly strong presence as the enforcer, Gally. I can’t wait to see him in anything again.

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