The Maze Runner begins with a boy in a box. He is going up in an elevator-like contraption, his body convulsing from some unknown pain, when suddenly the ride stops, and he meets his new world: a forest full of teenage boys. The new boy can’t remember who he is, where he came from, or anything else before riding up in the cage. So what does he do? He runs.
Full disclosure: I went into The Maze Runner blind. I did not read the popular YA novel by James Dashner before going in, nor did I look up anything else about the film, purely to preserve an element of surprise. So when the boy (Dylan O’Brien, of MTV’s Teen Wolf) begins to run, then realizes that he has nowhere to go — he and the rest of the group are walled in on all sides by a gargantuan stone maze hundreds of feet high — his shock is my shock. My best argument for watching the film before reading the book is that using a main character as an audience avatar can actually work as intended. Seeing his environment through his eyes for the first time, I also thought, What the hell is this?!
Exposition unfolds in a mostly non-clunky fashion thanks to good writing and decent acting as we get to know the characters and their living conditions. Each month a new shipment of supplies and a new boy, dubbed a Greenie, is sent to the Glade via a ground elevator. The boys don’t know who sends them or why. In fact, they can’t remember anything of their past lives except for their names, which come back to them after a day or so. “That’s the only thing they’ll let us keep,” Alby (Aml Ameen) explains to our audience avatar, who has just remembered, after a smack to the head, that his name is Thomas.
Turns out Alby was the very first boy brought to the Glade, which he estimates happened over three years ago, and since then he has established a set of rules to keep the Gladers in line: Always do your part, do not harm one another, never go out alone at night. Thomas quickly bonds with Alby, a Brit named Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and an adorable, chubby kid named Chuck (Blake Cooper), but he is particularly fascinated by the Runners: those elected by the group to run through the Maze each day when it opens and return each evening when it closes again, memorizing and mapping its ever-shifting passageways in an attempt to find a way out.
“Nobody survives a night in the Maze,” the Gladers repeatedly warn Thomas, referring to the Grievers: enormous half-spider, half-machine creatures that attack anyone unlucky enough to be trapped inside the Maze after nightfall. But Thomas is determined to find answers, even if that means risking his life in the Maze. “You’re not like the others,” says Alby. “You’re curious.” Ah, yes. Thomas is the Chosen One.
Not counting the Messianic Teen archetype that has driven most of the major YA book to film franchises over the past decade — Katniss in The Hunger Games, Tris in Divergent, Harry Potter in Harry Potter — the clichés and comparisons to other pop culture touchstones in The Maze Runner are myriad. The Gladers are like a cross between the Lord of the Flies kids and the Lost Boys, with some Hunger Games-level survival skills thrown in. Their Wendy comes in the form of Theresa (Kaya Scodelario of Skins), a first girl sent up the elevator with a note in her hand that reads, “She’s the last one, ever.” Without giving too much away, the story goes in a rather Matrix-y direction from there, with Glader antagonist Gally (Will Poulter) going full Cypher with a “We belong to the Maze” defense. Oh, well.
Patricia Clarkson is delicious in her role as a mysterious Creator, but measuring up to her YA villain competition like President Snow (Donald Sutherland, The Hunger Games) and Jeanine (Kate Winslet, Divergent) will take more than a just few minutes of screen time. Luckily for her, The Maze Runner’s ending leaves no doubt that a sequel or two is in the works. To which I say, bring on the desolation. We millennials love a good post-apocalyptic showdown, especially in series form.
Sure, the movie is derivative and ends on a somewhat sour note. But following a long line of tepid popcorn flicks in 2014 (Noah; Transcendence; I, Frankenstein; Robocop; The Legend of Hercules; Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit; oh god make it stop), The Maze Runner is more notable for what it does right than what it does wrong. The action is awesome and intense, barely scraping by with a PG-13 rating for some truly terrifying Griever sequences, and the plot is full of twists and turns that keep us guessing until the final reel.
Plus, kudos to the casting department for picking such physically distinctive and natural actors to play each one of the Gladers, Alby, Newt, and Chuck especially. O’Brien, a 23-year-old who looks like he could be Logan Lerman’s twin, also is believable in the arguably tougher action hero role: fully committing to every word, hitting every emotional and physical beat, and yes, sprinting like his heels are on fire. You heard it here first: We may have found our next Tom Cruise.