Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Maze Runner (Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, Gotham Group, Temple Hill Entertainment, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Later last night Charles and I ran a quite different sort of movie from the one we’d seen earlier, the 1933 Paramount comedy classic International House: The Maze Runner, a 2014 film from 20th Century-Fox based on the 2009 young-adult bestseller by James Dashner. As has become commonplace at least since the success of the seven-novel, eight-film Harry Potter cycle, Dashner wrote The Maze Runner as the first of a cycle of four novels telling a continuous story about (some of) the same main characters. He also anticipated Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and Veronica Roth’s Divergent cycles in setting his story in a dystopian future in which giant solar flares have wiped out most life on earth, and what hasn’t succumbed to the sun has largely been destroyed by a super-virus that literally eats away at people’s bodies and for which, of course, there is no cure. However, we don’t learn all that until the very end of the film. After the success of the Hunger Games and Divergent cycles on film (and the Twilight films before that — all three the product of the same studio, Summit Entertainment, which has merged with Lionsgate), 20th Century-Fox bought the rights to the Maze Runner sequence and assigned first-time director Wes Ball to the project after their attempt to get Catherine Hardwicke, who helmed the first Twilight movie, fell through.

Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers and T. S. Nowlin adapted Dashner’s novel for the film, and made quite a few changes but mostly kept the idea of the original story: the central character, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), finds himself inside an elevator with only fragmentary memories of who he is and how he got there. The elevator is taking him from an underground redoubt to the surface of the earth — and from the speed, the shakiness or whatever, he’s puking when the film opens — and it deposits him in the Glade, a confined patch of fertile earth inhabited by a bunch of teenage boys who are mostly self-sufficient — they build their own shelters and grow their own food — except for the “Box,” which every month brings the supplies they can’t make for themselves and also transports a new person to their community. The Glade is ringed by a series of tall concrete walls that make up a maze that keeps changing itself so the people inside it can’t figure out how to get out of it, and all the attempts of the boys to get themselves over the walls and out of the compound have been futile. (A number of posters on wondered why they couldn’t just build a ladder and escape, which wasn’t explained in the film but was in the book: in the book the walls are even higher than they are in the film, and the entire encampment is encased in a glass dome that, among other things, prevents it from raining inside the Glade, which does happen in the film.) The leader of the compound — and, apparently, the first boy sent there — is Alby (Ami Ameen), a hot Black guy who’s quite frankly the sexiest guy in the film, and among the key others are Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), the androgynous Chuck (Blade Cooper), and the Asian Minho (Ki Hong Lee) — nice to see that this is one science-fiction movie in which the future population isn’t depicted as all-white! (I believe the Nigerian character in the 1961 film 12 to the Moon was the first Black person ever shown in a science-fiction film.)

Also in the dramatis personae is Gally (Will Poulter), a nasty piece of work who takes an instant dislike to Thomas and tries to make his life as miserable as possible. The population is divided into people who do the necessary tasks to sustain the Glade and the Runners, whose job it is to explore the maze and see if there’s a way out. Thomas wants to be a Runner even though he’s only been there for three days, and besides, as Gally tells us, no one before has ever volunteered to be a runner — mainly because the job is incredibly dangerous; not only do the gates of the maze close every day at sunset but the corridors of the maze itself are filled with Grievers, half-mechanical, half-organic creatures that look like giant tarantulas with added attachments to make themselves more lethal. Once a Griever stings you, you first go crazy and then die a long, painful, agonizing death. Thomas learns this when he discovers Jack (Bryce Romero) in a remote part of the Glade, and instead of recognizing him Jack freaks out and tries to kill Thomas because he’s been stung and driven crazy by a Griever. Thomas goes out into the maze, comes upon a Griever, kills it, finds its control mechanism and uses it to deduce that they’re all part of an experiment being conducted by an organization called WCKD, pronounced “Wicked” and standing for World Catastrophe Killzone Department — and that all the Gladers have been programmed to believe in this experiment by having it drilled to them, in one of the few memories that survived their process of being loaded into the elevator and shipped up to the Glade, “Wicked is good.” (And here I thought it was just a rave review of that musical off-take of The Wizard of Oz!) As a result of Thomas’s success in killing a Griever and the group’s figuring out the pattern of the maze — it has eight positions and they rotate in the same sequence over and over — the unseen people running the show decide to make it tougher: they send in a woman, Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), who’s unconscious for much of her first days there and who comes in with a note attached to her reading, “She’s the last one — EVER.” Eventually half the kids escape the maze, the other half choose to stay in the Glade, and finally the kids hear from the head of the experiment (or at least their wing of it), Dr. Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson), saying that the maze was just the first of a series of tests to which they will be subjected to see which ones are worthy to become earth’s future saviors, or something.

Since neither Charles nor I read the books first before we watched this (as we did with The Hunger Games and Divergent), there’s probably a lot of stuff about the story that isn’t clear, but the essence is a template that’s become pretty familiar lately: the future is going to suck, and only a handful of resourceful and specially talented young people is going to redeem things and make sure there’s a future after that future that won’t suck — or at least won’t suck quite so much. As a movie, The Maze Runner is virtually a non-stop action fest — what little bits of exposition we get to help us understand what’s going on take place almost literally on the run as the kids move from one potential catastrophe to another — without the depth of characterization that made the Twilight, The Hunger Games and Divergent cycles appealing even to readers and filmgoers like us well in advance of the target age for their audiences. It’s also not as well acted, and suffers from the fact that the two most interesting characters, Alby and Chuck, both die before the end (so they won’t be in the inevitable sequelae, at least one of which, The Scorch Trials, has already been made). Dylan O’Brien is good in his role but he’s not especially charismatic — we believe in him as the hero more because the script tells us to than any star quality on his part — and Ami Ameen, who does have star charisma, is virtually hors de combat after the 33rd minute of this 110-minute film (though he survives nearly to the end). The director described it to the studio as “Lord of the Flies meets Lost,” and the Lord of the Flies influence is very strong, especially in depicting the interior politics of the Glade and the rivalries between the boys and the destructive cliques that inevitably develop within the community. So is Ender’s Game, likewise a property that wasn’t filmed until after The Hunger Games established the commercial potential of such stories, but which is also about a young man who’s enlisted in an experiment of which he’s not told the real purpose until the very end — though Ender’s Game star Asa Butterfield is a considerably stronger actor than Dylan O’Brien and made us believe in him, even in a story more weakly constructed than that of The Maze Runner. Charles and I have the DVD of the second film in the sequence, The Scorch Trials, and I plan to run that one tonight and risk possibly overexposing ourselves to this interesting but not especially compelling cycle of dystopian-future stories.