There’s something about a good mystery that grips me. I have an innate desire to solve, or at least witness the solving of, mysteries, even if the material itself is subpar. This week’s latest young adult novel turned film, “The Maze Runner,” is an example of that, as it kept me interested with one of those mysteries, even as the characters and narrative structure failed to impress. It’s by no means great, and is likely to divide reviewers based on minute details, as the film itself is as middling as they come, but if you’re into stories with slow revelations and a mystery worth solving, you could do a lot worse than “The Maze Runner.”
As the film opens, Timothy (Dylan O’Brien), wakes up in an elevator ascending at incredible speeds, but to where he doesn’t know. When he reaches the top, he finds a colony of other young men who have themselves previously made the same journey. They tell him that they don’t know why they’re here or who sent them, as their memories have been almost completely wiped, with only their names remaining (it’s “the one thing they let us keep,” one character explains to him). Everyone has a job to sustain their livelihood, but the most important boys are called “runners.” Every day, an opening leading to a gigantic maze appears in the giant walls encasing them before closing again at dusk. The runners explore the maze every day, mapping it out and trying to find an exit, and if they don’t return by the time the doors close, they’re never seen again, taken by mysterious entities the inhabitants call “grievers.” Three years have passed since they began mapping the maze and nothing has resulted from it, but Timothy is determined to get out of there and takes matters into his own hands.
The moment “The Maze Runner” begins, it hooks you. It doesn’t bother with backstory or even context for such an opening. Much like the character you’re watching, it simply throws you blindsided into a situation you know nothing about (provided you haven’t read the book, of course). It has you begging for answers. Who is this person? Where is this maze and why does it exist? This is, oddly enough, the film’s greatest strength and greatest weakness. The questions at the core of the narrative are enticing, but the answers to them leave much to be desired. By not providing any backstory, it’s impossible to care about these kids. Characters need to be defined, to be given personalities, for an audience to truly connect with them and care about their plight. By stripping them of those things before the movie even begins, it creates a heavy burden on the upcoming narrative and character exploration, which needs to make up for such emptiness.
Sadly, the eventual reveals don’t add much to the emotional hole residing in the core of “The Maze Runner.” As Timothy’s actions affect the colony and its inhabitants discover their true personalities, the movie hits a lull. It tries to move the story forward, but nevertheless brings it to a screeching halt. None of the characters are built in a believable way and their narrative arcs are obvious; their previous behavior a clear indicator of what they will become. Even worse, they start to give speeches and wax poetic about their freedom, yet they do so with childish dialogue, perhaps understandable given their age and intellectual immaturity, but it doesn’t make for the most interesting cinema.
It’s a shame because that central mystery is strong, even if it is surrounded by crummy dialogue, poor characterizations and oppressively dark nighttime scenes, which leads to action sequences with the grievers that can barely be followed when coupled with the aggressive shaky cam. In fact, I was so anxious to see the big reveal that I didn’t want to see it end—a clear indicator of a great mystery. Unfortunately, its reveal isn’t a particularly big one, serving merely as a cliffhanger for the sequel. Ending on a cliffhanger is not an inherently bad approach, but the story at hand still needs to have some type of resolution and the one provided here is minor when compared to other young adult film adaptations.
“The Maze Runner” is, by and large, a take it or leave it affair. It does some things incredibly well, but stumbles like a drunk, elderly cripple elsewhere. Worth noting is a terrific performance from the young lead actor, O’Brien. Although there is ultimately nothing here worth caring about, he pulls off his emotional scenes with fervor. By the end, though, “The Maze Runner” proves itself as little more than a cinematic tease. It entices you like a string of yarn to a curious cat, but when the string is finally grabbed and the foundation falls apart, you quickly realize there wasn’t much to get excited about in the first place.
The Maze Runner receives 2.5/5