Packed with thrills, daring surprises and compelling performances, “The Maze Runner” is no mere “Hunger Games” imitator and sprints to the finish line at the forefront of the YA franchises ready to take the baton from Katniss and company.
Smartly, “The Maze Runner” doesn’t just take its cues from “The Hunger Games,” but tackles sci-fi themes as well as the tone on the classic “Lord of the Flies” in this adaptation of James Dashner’s 2009 novel The Maze Runner (Book 1), which was published a year after Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games (Book 1) debuted.
Rather than start off slowly and build to the excitement, the film kicks off with an unnerving opening act that puts you right on edge.
Thomas (Dylan O’Brien, “The Internship”) awakens to a loud alarm on a freight elevator with no memory of his identity beyond faint glimpses of a near-drowning experience. The elevator deposits him in a massive enclosed space populated by young boys who previously arrived with little knowledge of their past lives and have established their own society.
Their leader, Alby (Aml Ameen, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”), welcomes Thomas to the community and explains the rules before assigning him in the care of his second-in-charge, Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster, “Game of Thrones”). Continuing a very welcome trend from other YA franchise-starters, “Maze Runner” has a diverse cast that doesn’t simply resemble token casting BINGO.
While the others seem resigned to their fate, Thomas wants to know what lies beyond their walls and in the maze — a dangerous labyrinth guarded by monstrous creatures.
Thomas’ curiosity quickly gains the respect of the group’s most respected maze runner, Minho (Ki Hong Lee), and the disdain of longtime community member Gally (“We’re the Millers’” Will Poulter playing against type as the tough guy), who doesn’t want to upset the status quo. Before Thomas can solve the maze’s riddle, the group gets another surprise with the arrival of Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), whose arrival sparks the end of everything the community has established.
Director Wes Ball isn’t a name mainstream audiences are familiar with as his directorial experience has been limited to three shorts, but he will definitely be a filmmaker worth paying attention to if his first full-length film is any indication.
Ball dedicates enough screen time to solidly establish the characters and he’s able to rely on his talented cast — O’Brien, Ameen, Brodie-Sangster, Hong Lee and Poulter in particular — to further flesh out their characters’ personalities. Debuting screenwriters Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers and T.S. Nowlin give the cast strong voices to further the audience investment in the characters.
And when it’s time for the larger action sequences, Ball doesn’t have any issues dramatically shifting the tone, prompting numerous bouts of bobbing and weaving as more threats emerge. Ball creates a world of genuine surprises that for the most part avoids the cookie-cutter nature of the opening acts of most recent YA films and will have viewers in an all-too rare position these days of not knowing exactly how each scene will transpire.
Most impressively, Ball was able to shoot a film that looks as massive and expansive as a summer blockbuster on a relatively pedestrian $30 million budget. Compared to other recent YA films like “Beautiful Creatures” ($60 million); “The Hunger Games” ($78 million) and “Divergent” ($85 million), Ball accomplished just as much with far less.
My one slight gripe is the film concludes on a cliffhanger instead of having an ending that can be expanded on with a sequel.
Distributor 20th Century Fox has already greenlit the adaptation of the second novel, The Scorch Trials (Maze Runner, Book 2), but it seems somewhat presumptive and really goes against the format of most successful franchises.
That said, the cliffhanger so perfectly whets your appetite for the next film it’s hard to be too upset with the strategy. “The Maze Runner” is the first YA novel turned film since “The Hunger Games” to warrant a sequel and I’m all set to race to theaters for the next installment.
Rating: 9 out of 10