The Maze Runner could've very easily ended up a cynical, boy-centric response to The Hunger Games franchise. It has a cast of young dudes, a premise and structure that are so video gamey it almost hurts and the general teen-dystopian feel that's all the rage in Young Adult literature (like Hunger Games, it's also adapted from a YA series) these days.
The lead can't hold a candle to Hunger Games protagonist Katniss Everdeen
Despite some missteps and plot holes, and the fact that the lead can't hold a candle to Hunger Games protagonist Katniss Everdeen, The Maze Runner is better and more tightly constructed than a simple cash-in. It's a well-paced adventure-thriller with an intoxicating sense of mystery and the chutzpah to take huge leaps with its fictional world.
The film takes little time to get started. From the first frames, our protagonist — a nameless, amnesiac young man played by Dylan O'Brien — wakes up in a box and is transported, panicking, to a field filled with rugged young men. He doesn't know who he is, how he got here, or what the hell is happening, and freaks out through the first moments of the movie.
Soon, he starts to get a grip. Alby (Aml Ameen), the tiny society's charismatic leader, Chuck (Blake Cooper), a younger, smaller boy with a can-do attitude and Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster, also known as Jojen Reed from Game of Thrones), provide some exposition.
Every month, one boy is sent up to live in the verdant field, surrounded on all sides by a colossal maze. The kids have a nicely ordered society set up, and a sort of makeshift village in the center of the clearing. There are builders, healers and runners — young men who run through the maze by day, trying to find a way out. The runner group is led by Minho (Ki Hong Lee), a buff kid who knows much more than he lets on.
Naturally, there are horrors in the maze that appear when the sun goes down. And the labyrinth rearranges itself every night, making the business of mapping it a tall order.
The mystery of the boys' whereabouts and the nature of their imprisonment is potent
The mystery of the boys' whereabouts and the nature of their imprisonment is potent, and it unravels in a largely satisfying way. From its first moments, there's a sense that something isn't right in this fantastical world, and the film constantly drip-feeds information and clues, until it becomes a deluge. There were moments of genuine surprise in the movie, even when the logic behind those reveals seemed a bit dubious.
The Maze Runner is also tightly paced. There's very little downtime between tense action setpieces and character-building moments, and what little humor there is in the film comes largely from Chuck's antics. For the majority of its running time, The Maze Runner is thrilling, and I cared about most of its characters, as archetypal as they are.
The Maze Runner also contains a dab of Star Trek style philosophy and commentary, and a very subtle nod at racial politics, which worked surprisingly well for a teen action flick. When order is disrupted and the time for certain rules to change comes about, some resist, even violently so. Gally (Will Poulter), looking for the world like a playground bully, despises change and all that it means for his home. One shot, of Gally and his all-white cronies, standing opposed to the protagonist and his multiracial band of youngsters intent on finding an escape, feels positively subversive for such a big-budget Hollywood product. Change is afoot, it seems to say, though, predictably, our protagonist is a stereotypical Hollywood-approved white male.
This is worth exploring further because it seems like The Maze Runner has progressive things to say about race in other, even subtler ways. Alby, a young black man, is a strong and likable leader. It's implied that he was the one who brought order to the village, and he keeps it capably. Minho is one of the best Asian-American characters I've ever seen in an action movie. He's a capable athlete and loyal friend, portrayed as a kind of brave hunk, not a stereotype.
These portrayals are positively refreshing. And to its credit, The Maze Runner never holds these examples up in any showy fashion. It just presents a world wherein a diverse group of young people work together and do what they need to do to survive.
Aside from those few elements of higher aspiration, The Maze Runner doesn't try to be more than a dumb action movie. There are plot holes wide enough for our hero to fall through, and a few big emotional moments towards the end of the film simply aren't earned. I heard the audience actually laugh a few times at what were obviously supposed to be dramatic twists.
For what it lacks in brains, the film never runs completely out of steam. Even when I couldn't quite believe what I was watching, I wanted to know more, and I was onboard with whatever goofy sci-fi antics were implied by the film's fictional world. The Maze Runner took me somewhere, and it had at least a few thoughtful things to say during the trip. That's all I really need in an action YA-adaptation.