I won’t hide it, I read a few of these young adult books from time to time. I like seeing what hype is about, as well as finding new guilty pleasures. So I feel fairly confident in saying that of all of these YA series, James Dashner’s The Maze Runner was one of the most original and well written books, perhaps only second to the original Hunger Games book. As such, I was pretty damn excited to see this one come to the screen, and although it’s taken a little longer than I would have liked, I’m happy to report that it was well worth the wait.
We start the movie in darkness. Thomas (Dylan O’Brian) is traveling up an elevator shaft without any knowledge of where or who he is. When the doors open, he finds himself in a primitive society of boys who live in a large enclosure called the glade boarded off by a massive maze. Every night, the maze closes and shifts, making the boys’ escape from this hellhole all the more difficult, and trapping those left inside with vicious creatures called Grievers. Much to the dismay of Gally (Will Poulter), one of the main influences in the society, Thomas starts to make some headway in the maze, eventually becoming a ‘runner’ which is the group’s term for those who explore the maze by day. Things start to complicate when a girl who knows Thomas named Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) comes into the glade, with a message that she will be the last person ever delivered.
I was very impressed with how well this material was handled, especially considering that Wes Ball (who has a background in visual effects) is a first time director. I say that because this movie is clearly assembled by someone who understands exactly how a blockbuster should be constructed, balancing a very fun premise with solid character development and some good looking action to boot. It feels like the work of someone deep into their career throwing it back to their roots, and doing it better this time.
All of the characters here are likable and very well preformed. Considering his ‘Teen Wolf’ roots and his fangirl factor, I was dubious of Dylan O’Brian at first, initially finding him as a bland vessel for the rest of the characters. However, as the movie started to give him more depth, O’Brain really steps up to the challenge, and delivers us a character we can rally behind. He’s not a passive little piece of gunk like Percy Jackson, but a driven and tenacious guy who genuinely starts to care for his fellow captives. Also surprisingly good here is Will Poulter, who’s over-the-top goofy performance in We’re The Millers really brought the proceedings down. Here, he’s intense, full of rage, and arrogant, and he sells every second of it. Also solid here are Thomas Brodie-Sangster of Game of Thrones fame, and Kaya Scodelario, who both nicely bring things back down to earth.
The story very nicely sidesteps many of the typical tropes we see in these things. There’s no goofy love triangle, broad social commentary, or silly Mcguffin to track down. It’s all very streamlined and goal oriented, which works wonders for the pacing. As far as adapting the novel goes, they made all of the right cuts, capturing the spirit of the story to an almost exact tee, without painstakingly including every detail (including completely omitting the most cumbersome plot element in the novel). There is not a wasted second here, the urgency of the story palpable throughout.
Aesthetically speaking, this film is nearly flawless. Ball must’ve scoured the book for every visual detail he could uncover, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen an adaptation that so rigorously aligned with what I pictured in the book. In fact, the set design almost perfectly aligns with what little art there is in the book. Beyond that, the action sequences are tense, well photographed, and have real consequences. The Grievers make for worthy adversaries, both well designed and very creepy. There are several times where things feel more like a horror film, with the boys getting picked off one at a time, and although most of the gore is offscreen, Ball makes you feel the impact of every single death.
One nitpick, I thought the ending could have been handled better. The last five minutes of this movie are basically the trailer for the sequel, and because the filmmakers felt the need to shove that in, we were robbed of what I thought could have been a very chilling note to end on. It’s not anything crippling, but it certainly knocks the wind out of what is actually a pretty tragic ending.
The Maze Runner isn’t anything groundbreaking, but it’s a well oiled machine of a movie that delivers everything it promises. As far as I’m concerned, Wes Ball is now a major player, because if he can deliver such a confident, exciting film on his first go around, I can only imagine what he can do once he acquires some more experience through the other two installments of this series. It’s the best possible adaptation of this material that could have been made.