Sunday, September 21, 2014

Escape Route: THE MAZE RUNNER


The Maze Runner is only the latest science fiction story in which the world is in the process of ending and only teens can save us. No wonder teens like these stories so much. These narratives say that the most special and talented people are adolescents who must valiantly defend society from all those mean adults who manipulate and oppress them. Hey, sometimes that works. Take a look at the Hunger Games series, which has deepened its initial teen fantasy into something socio-politically potent. But with Maze Runner, we’re not even close to The Hunger Games quality. We’re talking sub-Divergent nonsense of the flimsiest kind, all monotonous noise and blur that’s never exciting and always chintzy to its core.

It starts with Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) waking up in a forest glade populated exclusively with other teenage boys. He remembers only his name. The others have the same memory problem. They don’t know why they are there. They’ve been in this clearing for three years, with a new boy arriving each month. But together they’ve built an ad hoc society with log cabins, division of labor, and a functioning system of government, though compared to Caesar’s tribe in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes they don’t seem so sophisticated. These boys are surrounded by towering metal walls that open into a vast maze every morning and slam shut every night. Runners are sent into the maze to find the way out. Each day, they return without making progress. Or, if they don’t make it back to camp by sundown, they don’t return at all. There be monsters in that there maze.

I’ll believe a lot of sci-fi mumbo jumbo, but this situation never feels believable because the relationships between the boys feel so false. There’s typical gruff posturing and friendly banter as camaraderie and rivalries make themselves known. Thomas meets a host of characters who either help or hinder his integration into the group. But these dynamics are not particularly interesting, the characters relating to each other in bland ways, trading exposition and worried looks. They’re thin types who don’t evolve. And it’s all too low-key, predictable, antiseptic, and asexual to be a convincing group of isolated teen boys. It’s not Lord of the Flies. It’s all nice guys except for the one who’s kind of a jerk. Oh, and, in a surprise twist, a girl shows up, and there’s not even a hint of romantic interest from anyone. They’re so well behaved.

Talented actors play these youths, though for the most part you’d only know it if you’ve seen them elsewhere. O’Brien, from The Internship and MTV’s Teen Wolf, is a decent enough leading man, with a fresh face and good action-movie running skills. The ensemble features a few unknowns like Ki Hong Lee and Blake Cooper as well as The Butler’s Ami Ameen, Game of Thrones’ Thomas Brodie-Sangster, We’re the Millers’ Will Poulter, Southcliffe’s Kaya Scodelario, and Black Nativity’s Jacob Latimore, among others. Maybe twenty years from now the movie will only be remembered for containing a bunch of big stars before they were big. But they simply don’t have any interesting material to work with. They’re blanks in an insubstantial situation.

It doesn’t help that they’re made up to look less like rugged young survivalists, and more photoshoot-ready beautiful people artfully smudged. It’s all part of first-time feature director Wes Ball’s glossy approach that shoots the screenplay (by three credited writers from a book by James Dashner) dutifully and unimaginatively with a pounding Hans Zimmer sound-alike score. We scramble around the maze and around the base camp without ever getting a sense of where we are or what’s at stake beyond needing to escape. It sounds important, but flails around uninterestingly. By the time the action ramps up and the climax dutifully explodes with competent, but personality-free, effects work, it seems awfully simple. If that’s all it takes to get out of the maze, what were these boys doing all this time? It’s a symptom of the movie’s low ambitions and high waste of time. It mistakes rule-setting for world-building, obfuscation for mystery, and threatening future installments for creating interest.

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