20 October 2014

Review: THE MAZE RUNNER

It feels like dystopian future in sci-fi is increasingly becoming the province of movies for young adults. Whether it's the execrable Divergent or the more popular Hunger Games movies, the tropes of the genre are perfectly keyed to the niggling adolescent feeling that everyone in the world is against you, often to the effect of creating a world that doesn't feel lived-in or rational. Enter The Maze Runner, which has that in spades and yet beats the pitfalls of other, similar films.

The movie opens with a young man in a service elevator containing a month's supplies, being shoved into a glade in the middle of a vast labyrinth with no memory of how he got there. Eventually remembering his name is Thomas, he butts heads with some of the other amnesiac boys, who have built a ramshackle society and don't want to stray too far into the maze for fear of the monsters that roam its walls by night. The arrival of the Glade's first ever girl, apparently the last ever new arrival, spurs the Gladers into making a last ditch attempt at escape.

There's little point in me pretending that this isn't just an episode of another larger franchise, but you might be surprised to know that The Maze Runner mostly makes a brave stab at doing just that. Lord of the Flies is in the background of the teenage male society that's displayed here, but there's also a little of TV's Lost, in as much as you're not sure where it's going but the thriller and mystery elements suck you in anyway. And at least in this case, first-time director Wes Ball has the blueprint of James Dashner's book series to go on, so they won't just be making stuff up as they go.

It seems weird to say, but you can actually explain away a few of the usual problems with these films by the fact that it's an almost exclusively teenage male cast. The situation does feel lived-in- group leader Gally sends Runners out to look for an escape, but it's all for show while the group is actually jogging in place, stranded in a tentative teenage dystopia of their He-Man Clubhouse. It's believable that they haven't all actually sat around and talked about their feelings until a more sensitive and intuitive Thomas arrives, with the equilibrium being further unbalanced by the arrival of Teresa as the sole female, which prompts an incredulous "It's a girl!" reaction.

Any typical exploration of relationships, particularly of a triangular nature, is staved off for now, in favour of a sexless but violent thriller within and around the walls of the maze. The investment of the young cast is a big part of why it all works so well. Dylan O'Brien and Kaya Scodelario both put in good turns as the newcomers to the Glade, but Will Poulter predictably steals the show in yet another role that shows off his versatility as a movie star while keeping his usual comic chops hidden away. It's another film that could stand to have had a couple of jokes (a lesson that The Hunger Games gradually came into with its second instalment) but it's still thrilling, even if it's humourless.

Like various other mystifyingly dark effects movies, it suffers from staging many of its action sequences in the maze, where the frankly terrifying nocturnal beasties known as Grievers (a kind of fucked up spider-pig with lethal robotic appendages) are sometimes difficult to make out during chases, especially during the scenes where any of our young heroes have to face one head on. Plus, the pretence that we're not setting up for The Scorch Trials next September entirely falls down in the last ten minutes, leading to a clumsy cold open for part two that fails to finish off the first part in a satisfying manner and introduces a menace behind the maze with a laughably evil public face.

Fortunately for fans of young adult dystopia, The Maze Runner is well above the low standard set by this year's Divergent and may actually be the best of these franchise kickstarters since The Hunger Games. While the latter of those franchises isn't exactly known for its nuances, this has a similar investment in its young cast and it flinches from violence even less than the kid-killing deathmatches of Suzanne Collins' Panem. If the finale is anything to go by, then the arrival of grown-up characters and their backstory in the upcoming sequels may make things overly complicated, but for now, this is a solid thriller with some cracking horror elements and enough reason to get curious about what happens next.

The Maze Runner is now showing at cinemas and IMAX screens nationwide.
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If you've seen The Maze Runner, why not share your comments below? How many more Nouns (capitalised for clumsy emphasis) do we think we'll get through between this and the Divergent series?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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