When Fox picked up the feature version of animator Wes Ball’s short movie Ruin in 2012, the deal soon led to the studio offering Ball The Maze Runner as his full-length directing debut. Entrusted with the first book in author James Dashner’s futuristic series of four young adult novels, Ball seems to be applying a strategy that’s predicated more on quickly launching a free movie series than developing a substantive long-form narrative.
When The Maze Runner was published in 2009, it became a New York Times best-seller, and it’s easy to understand why: Dashner has equipped a distinctive, if derivative, dystopian plot that’s easily recognizable, together with archetypal characters engaged in an endless, thrilling struggle for their lives. Even though the main protagonists’ survival is never seriously in doubt, it’s threatened frequently enough to keep interest, so with anticipation concerning the novel’s adaptation already running high, the release is likely to see substantive response from young adults and Dashner’s literary fans.
Ball opens the movie with Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) arriving in the Glade at the center of the Maze just like every other kid before him — on a freight elevator that releases him and some meager cargo in a huge open area covered by meadows and woods that’s encircled by massive concrete walls. Unable to remember any details from his past, he’s quickly assimilated into the makeshift society that the population of several dozen teens has created, even though all of them suffer from a similar state of trauma-induced amnesia.
Alby (played by Aml Ameen), the first arrival, and Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) establish the leadership team, and enforcer Gally (Will Poulter) provides any physical persuasion needed to keep everyone in line performing their assigned tasks. Gardeners and goat herders provision the camp, craftsmen fashion shelters and tools, but the Runners get the most respect.
Every night, the Maze that encircles the Glade alters its shape, and every day, the Runners race into the maze led by Minho (Ki Hong Lee) to map each iteration in an ongoing quest to find a way out, but they must return to the Glade before nightfall and the emergence of the horrifying Grievers, horrendous spider-like biomechanical predators that patrol the Maze. After more than three years of exploration, they’re still searching for the secret to the Maze, but it takes Thomas’ unique perspective to open up new possibilities when he’s quickly promoted to The Maze Runner after helping Alby and Minho survive a night in the Maze, an unprecedented feat.
The arrival of Teresa (played by Kaya Scodelario), the very first girl ever to be sent to the Glade, further upsets the delicate social order, especially since she seems to have some mysterious connection with Thomas, though neither can remember exactly what it might be.
Thomas and Minho’s quest continues to reveal more clues, which includes an electronic device retrieved from a slaughtered Griever that might help them solve the Maze’s inner workings. But with Alby badly wounded in a Griever attack and Gally aggressively pushing back against any attempts to leave the Glade, Thomas and Teresa will need to persuade the other boys that a direct and strategic penetration of the Maze is their only hope for escape and survival.
The Maze Runner’s similarities to well-known literary works (Nineteen Eighty-Four and Lord of the Flies among them) and speculative fiction thrillers (Logan’s Run, Battle Royale and The Hunger Games, for instance) are almost more reassuring than disconcerting. In fact, it’s this recurrent sense of familiarity instead of any distinct originality that makes the picture consistently compelling, although never outright challenging.
This lack of narrative sophistication is exemplified by “WCKD,” the skeptical organization led by Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson) that has trapped the kids in the Maze and relentlessly thwarts their attempts to learn about the justification for their incarceration, making belated third-act plot revelations much more frustrating than gratifying.
You can’t blame the kids for all the confusion, however. With most of his memories inaccessibly buried in his subconscious, Thomas becomes a bundle of instincts and impulses, dominated by a restless curiosity that O’Brien expresses rather realistically. Scodelario doesn’t figure in the action until well into the movie, when she first causes a sensation by disrupting the masculine equilibrium, but then gets relegated to sidekick status too fast. Relatively lacking in backstory, most of the huge supporting cast has scant chance to build character, even though Brodie-Sangster and Poulter are better differentiated as Thomas’ advocate and rival, respectively.
Clarkson rarely registers in The Maze Runner free movie’s final sequences, and Lee’s Minho character gets drastically shortchanged; a notable slip-up considering his vital role investigating the mystery of the Maze. In addition to some uneven handling of the cast, Ball competently styles the action scenes throughout the movie and capitalizes on his VFX expertise with pulse-pounding sequences tracking the Runners through the Maze battling Grievers.