With the amount of young adult book adaptation movies flooding the release schedule at the moment, you can forgive yourself for being bored at studio’s attempts to hoover up Hunger Games levels of money. What’s worse is that the majority of these seem to be ‘rinse and repeat’ quasi-clones of one another with little to no unique aspects and generally being uninteresting. I’m looking at you Divergent! Still, barring the worthwhile uprising of Games, debuting director Wes Ball gives us something to cheer on with the start of James Dashner’s post-apocalypse series of books in The Maze Runner.
An amnesiac boy wakes up on an elevator being hurled upwards. At the top, he emerges into an open glen forest area, inhabited with recovering amnesiacs and surrounded by four walls. Struggling to remember anything, he bonds with the rest of the all-male ‘lostboys’ as he finds out that they’re trapped in the middle of a monster-filled maze which constantly keeps changing it’s position, making it near-impossible to escape. Eventually, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien, MTV’s Teen Wolf) remembers his name and settles into life in the Maze. He even applies for the deadly Maze Runner job where someone goes out and map the maze, until one day the elevator brings a girl who recognises Thomas by name. Along with Teresa (Kaya Scodelario, Effy from British teen coming of age drama Skins) comes a message of doom that there won’t be anymore supplies sent to support them, meaning Thomas must gather the rest of the Gladers and lead them out into the Maze to survive.
What it may lack in starpower, The Maze Runner makes up for it by assembling a enthusiastic and genuinely good young cast. Ball pulls out a great performance out of O’Brien and he’s really watchable as the unintentionally disruptive new kid that upsets the status quo and changes everything. I’m a fan of Scodelario from her work on Skins yet she feels almost to the side despite being the only girl in an all-boy cast pretty much. Not a problem with her acting in itself and what little time she’s given she does pretty well with. Thomas Brodie-Sangster continues to build on a very impressive resume (including as Jojen from Game Of Thrones) for someone who is barely in their mid twenties with another strong performance as Newt. Similarly, Will Poulter (We’re The Millers) also builds on this as the main bully-cum-runner team leader of the movie. Everyone here is insanely watchable and it’s great to see such a youthful energy for a film aimed at the market, compared to other which stuff themselves with elder cast members.
Ball is given the proverbial, well, ball and runs with it in creating a worthy and engaging YAB (young adult book) movie. There’s a reasonably difficult task in instant world building setting up the maze and the central glen, but not only does Ball manage this with gutso from the opening scenes, he adds even more. The wide expansive glen is filled out by being made as a lived-on area, almost like a Robinson Crusoe except the kids are marooned by a massive wall rather than a sea, which is countered by the claustrophobic, tight spaces of the maze. The maze is it’s own character and brings with it it’s own sense of dread and unease which the kids have to suffer in. What’s better is that whilst some YAB movies overcomplicate themselves to the point of boredom, The Maze Runner is kept thankfully simple. The end goal is obvious – to get out of the maze – and yet there’s many twists and the mystery behind the kids being dumped there in the first place gives it a tasty enigmatic atmosphere throughout.
There is a very nice pace to The Maze Runner with little to no waste in the runtime, which for a near two hour film is a surprise. Everything here contributes to the plot, emotion and characters in a positive and clear way. There’s enough action set-pieces to satisfy anyone and it’s definitely thrilling. The first encounter between Thomas & the Grievers at night as he goes on a near Benny Hill chase around a section of the maze at night, climbing vines and leaping to ledges is particularly memorable. There is enough done to get across the darker tone of this quasi-post apocalypse plot, with the boys getting rid of those who don’t pull their weight at camp or become ill and yet it doesn’t quite hit home when it’s meant to. However, there’s more than enough deeper meaning into some of the kids struggling to accept their fate and thinking of the maze as more of a god and offering sacrifices as a result. It’s aimed at teens with a hidden meaning of pushing through when the going gets tough and how you can triumph when times are hard.
Some annoyances though stop me from labelling this as a Hunger Games topper. Whilst the tone is different to what you expect, we have seen this movie before in countless reincarnations with the sci-fi horror Cube springing to mind. As such, coupled with the fact we’re not given much to go on either, the script is wafer thin. The Griever robo-organic scorpions monster things plaguing Thomas & co. throughout the maze aren’t great looking and raise confusion rather than fear. The performances, whilst being ace, can barely mask the stereotypes we see in the boys in the beginning of old sage, bully, tubby comic relief and so. To a point, whilst there is some aspects behind the plot explained, there are some questions left unanswered and by the time The Maze Runner finishes and we’re launched away from this movie’s premise, you’re left a bit miffed that it’s not all tied off.
And yet, there’s a massive level of mystery which will keep me coming back for more. To a point with YAB adaptations, we can kind of guess where they’re going before they even come out. Katniss Everdeen has to win the first Hunger Games movie for that franchise to continue. Bella & Edward could do with getting together romantically by the end of Twilight. Tris has to kick off the rebellion and figure out her place in society before the runtime of Divergent is up. Here though, there’s a refreshing well of the unknown – you can not guess what’s going to happen to the kids and that’s what keeps you hooked throughout. It leaves you wanting to see what the next instalment will bring, the resolution to the mysteries behind it and so on. It’s something very hard to evoke in films in general and it’s worth seeing The Maze Runner just to get a taste of enthusiasm of where this franchise could go as it’s, in a positive way, all up in the air.
A flat out piece of hatred comes from the Picture. Not a problem with the quality itself but rather the dated and disgusting Letterbox format. It’s 2015 and some film companies still feel the need to compress the visuals with the dual black bars surrounding the footage. It’s ugly, distracting and simply not on. There’s no option to swap to a full screen from 16:9 either so we’re stuck with it. It’s a massive disappointment and to be honest rather off putting to sit through a film which deserves to be seen with the full slab available.
To be fair, what’s inside the Letterbox does look great. The centre of the Maze living area looks very lush and near tropical, especially when you consider there’s four gigantic blue screens probably in the background for the walls. The CG does keep a decent level up throughout in the transfer to Blu-ray and it’s thanks to the 1080p output which makes this a pretty film to watch. You can forgive yourself for forgetting that this movie was made on quite a small budget for the YAB genre at only $35 million or so, as it looks so slick despite it’s obvious minimalist tendancies. It’s just it only takes up only 80% of your screen. Hardly a satisfying visual experience and it’s only a step above watching real life through a keyhole.
Decent. Particular praise should go to the Sound Mixing for masterfully balancing out a good musical score with dialogue and background noise. This is at it’s best when Thomas is in a night time chase with a Griever – nothing is over placed another audio aspect and it comes in and out at the right times. The choice to go for 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio was a good one as it brings out the best of the film’s audio. No gaffs from start to finish with the sound stage active throughout. There is precise direction in action scenes with excellent sound in motion. Dialogue is clear and understandable and in major sound effects, there always feels like there’s the right level of emphasis behind it.
A bit too quiet but there is some gold in here. Of particular note, seeing Blake Cooper go from harassing agents to Ball in getting an audition to play comedic relief character Chuck & being loved by cast & crew in a backstage diary cum documentary is a neat 5 minute journey. Also, after seeing Ball’s original pitch in a heavily CG-filled short film for a post-apocalypse action movie, “Ruin”, you can see why Fox let him have this despite not having a big directorial slate behind him. It’s very pretty and there’s enough ideas in here to warrant maybe seeing a fleshed out full feature from it down the road.
The rest is standard stuff in the form of a ‘Making of…’ documentary, deleted scenes, gag & visual effects reels and an audio commentary from Ball. Perfectly fine serviceable extras which will kill a couple of hours. I do feel an opportunity may have been missed to go into The Maze Runner fandom somewhat. Since these book adaptations are generally pretty popular before there’s a movie coming out, why not have a look into the fans behind these?
The Bottom Line:
Letterbox aside, there’s more than enough mystery and curiosity behind The Maze Runner to warrant a recommendation into picking up this Blu-ray, if you want to follow up your Hunger Games appetite with some more YAB viewing. I would say it’s one for the teens directly since there’s not a massive amount to appease an adult watching this but there’s a certain emotional depth and a great ambiguity behind this franchise overall plot that will satisfy anyone. Take the barely sorted out plotholes in your stride and enjoy a young, fresh cast managing to suck you in with a surprisingly deep meaning fight to get out of that bloody maze.