The Maze Runner is engaging, it’s fun, it’s a little hokey and unpolished and it showcases just why Hollywood should place their bets on fresh talent. When studios take a risk and put a new face in charge, the results can be exciting, and in a business that thrives on new voices it’s something we should be seeing more of.
Based on the best-selling novel by James Dashner, The Maze Runner is about a young man named Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), who’s transported into a mysterious location called the Glade. It’s there he meets a group of boys who have been growing in numbers for the past three years. From them he learns that they’re trapped by an ever-changing maze and its sinister creatures, called the Grievers. However, Thomas refuses to sit idly by and is determined to find a way out. He’s the catalyst for real change, but everyone is thrown for a loop when Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), the first girl, is delivered to the Glade. With a looming threat the group must choose whether to stay put and remain safe, or strike out and risk everything for freedom.
I had some reservations going into this film as I never really fell for Dashner’s world on paper. Luckily, director Wes Ball had a vision that would take the core of the story and put it on screen in a way that managed to keep the original book’s drive and purpose while turning it into something cinematic and tangible. It’s Ball whose remarkable confidence as a first time director truly kicks this film into a higher gear. With a history in visual effects, he has an eye for what looks good and, more importantly, what looks real. Mixing practical and technical effects, he’s created an ominous threat with the towering maze and an exciting movie monster with the Grievers. We buy into the world because of the passion he puts into building it. He wears his influences on his sleeve, and you see some of Alien’s design in the Grievers, some of Jurassic Park in John Paesano’s thrilling score, and some of Lord of the Flies in the storytelling, but he takes the concepts and the imagery and makes them his own. It’s rare for me to take such note of the directing in films like this, but Ball was so self-assured and efficiently managed so much on such a small budget that you can’t help but wonder what he could accomplish with more.
It’s this “new” quality that I found so enthralling about the film. Despite its faults – and there were plenty – it’s left me thinking hours after I’ve left the screening. Will Poulter as the self-appointed muscle spreads it on a bit thick sometimes, Scodelario is criminally underused, and the bouts of exposition lack any subtlety. The second act could have been paced better instead of giving us 20 minutes where almost nothing happens and then bombarding us with action.
Despite these faults I can’t help but feel affection toward such a film, one that looks like it built itself from the ground up, was obviously a passion project, and offers up such new talent and actors who look like the teens they’re playing instead of gorgeous movie stars who’ve had dirt rubbed on them. The film really finds its footing toward the end, where all of a sudden I realized my eyes were glued to the screen, no longer being distracted by the mumbling critic behind me or the patrons leaving their seats every three minutes to use the restroom because I was so completely invested. I don’t mind if there are bumps along the way so long as the result has captured my attention completely.
Much of the success is due to the young actors, who all seem game to throw themselves entirely into their roles. It’s an ensemble cast, and while many of them do solid work, Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Newt and Aml Ameen as Alby stick out as the two leaders of the Glade. Ameen has a quiet, sturdy nature that allows for us to understand why he’s in the leadership role, and Sangster seems like an old pro, making the most awkward and exposition-heavy dialogue seem natural.
However, this is Dylan O’Brien’s film. Breaking out in his first leading role and likely the name that 20th Century Fox is betting on, O’Brien is first and foremost nothing like his other popular character, Stiles, from the MTV show Teen Wolf. He has fantastic physicality in a role that demanded an egregious amount of energy and you can’t help but feel tired just watching him go at it. He’s an unpolished performer with little training which, rather than being a detriment, ends up aiding the film. While Thomas isn’t an interesting character by nature, he’s made so by O’Brien, and despite not being given much range to work with, there’s one scene in particular that allows him to project such raw emotion that, like with the director, you can’t help but be interested to see where his career goes.
I genuinely enjoyed the film. I think it could have been tweaked here and there and I don’t think it’s the best of its genre but it has a lively spark to it; it has an uninhibited ambition that makes me want to see more, and I will be the first to say that I can’t wait to see what the sequel brings.
The Maze Runner opens everywhere this Friday, September 19th.