By Nick Anstett
Elm Staff Writer
Young adult literature has pretty much become king of the proverbial popcultural hill in the last few years. “Harry Potter” got the ball rolling and now most best-selling novels and films find their origins in the genre. It was just a few short weeks ago that I was bemoaning how predictable and uniform the young adult dystopian subgenre had become in “The Giver.” The simple fact that it has become a subgenre in and of itself speaks volumes. It’s for this reason that “The Maze Runner” is such a welcome surprise. While it’s far from perfect and bares many of the familiar tropes that “The Hunger Games” has introduced the past few years, the film based upon the novel by James Dashner is filled with enough original and truly compelling content that it attains its own identity.
Sixteen-year-old Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) wakes up in a world unfamiliar with him, a small but lush forest surrounded on all sides by gigantic steel walls. With no memories and belongings, Thomas is forced to rely on the other inhabitants, other adolescent and young adult boys, of this world, known only as The Glade. Their charismatic leader Alby (Aml Ameen) takes Thomas under his wing and introduces him to the community the young men have built together through rigorous team work and safety regulations. Alby explains that new boys have been appearing on a monthly basis for as long as he can remember. While Alby and the other members of The Glade have made a life for themselves in their prison, there are dangers lurking outside their walls. Monstrous creatures known as Grievers roam the ever changing maze outside, and despite the efforts of Alby and other Gladers, known as runners, very little is known about the world they inhabit. However, it quickly becomes clear that Thomas’s presence in The Glade may carry more purpose than it seems and he may change the way the Maze runs forever.
“The Maze Runner’s” unique premise is likely what will draw many viewers in during its initial hour. While it clearly reads like a chimera of “The Lord of the Flies,” “The Hunger Games,” and “Lost,” its execution feels fresh all the same. Much of this is due to Wes Ball’s strong direction. Ball smartly recognizes the inherent mystery and creeping apprehension inherent in the concept at hand. Playing a group of teenage boys off one another like rats in a literal titanic maze seemingly filled with unknown horrors is a clear powder keg of tension and Ball exploits this. While we know that at some point we will follow Thomas and his fellow runners into the Maze’s gargantuan walls, he spends enough time creating the maze as a looming impersonal antagonist that the first steps into its twisting corridors are filled with something approaching genuine dread.
O’Brien and Ameen stand as the film’s most memorable roles, each carrying with them strong depths of emotion and gravitas for young actors. O’Brien in particular makes due with an admittedly barebones character to provide a performance that does carry the film. Will Poulter also shines as O’Brien’s in Glade rival. The only true disappointment is Kaya Scodelario as The Glade’s first and only female inhabitant, which is frustrating given how testosterone heavy the cast is.
The Grievers, the beasts scuttling along The Maze’s vine covered walls, are another standout. While I will not spoil their appearance, Bell and the creative team have created a unique and oddly unsettling monster that stands out as one of the more memorable creatures that have stepped onto screen this year.
That being said, those looking for answers within The Maze’s walls may be disappointed. It’s clear that “The Maze Runner” is poised to join its brethren as yet another long running adolescent franchise. Answers are fleeting, noncommittal, and often times just confusing. It’s enough to keep you guessing and perhaps reward further viewership. For some it may add to just how unsettling its central premise is, but for others it may come off as obvious baiting for franchise loyalty.
It’s clunky, nebulous, and could afford to take a few more risks, but all the same it’s easy to get lost in “The Maze Runner’s” walls.