Thursday, 30 October 2014

The Maze Runner – a merry teenage dystopian adventure that doesn't make you cringe

Well it’s another teen dystopia novel turned into a film – which is fast turning into a reason not to see a movie instead of a reason to see a movie as studio heads hope – but what’s this? No love triangle? No whining? Teenagers with a modicum of self-respect? A decent storyline? It’s all gone strangely right for the makers of The Maze Runner.

It starts with a great cast – Dylan O’Brien, who you may have seen stealing scenes in the surprisingly watchable MTV series Teen Wolf as the eponymous werewolf’s bestie Stiles, does a terrific job with the top billing of Thomas, ably supported by Thomas Brodie Sangster, last seen as Jojen Reed in Game of Thrones, and Will Poulter of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The movie starts where Thomas’s memory begins, with the clanking of a huge industrial lift that comes out in a valley surrounded by high walls and a group of Peter Pan-esque lost boys.

Thomas remembers nothing about who he was before or how he got there, just like all the lost boys before him, his life starts in the small clearing in the centre of what’s actually a giant maze – one whose walls move at night. By day, the gates to the maze open and Runners take off to try to map the inside and find a way out. By night, creatures the boys call Grievers roam the paths and kill anyone left out there.

It could all be going a bit Lord of the Flies but for camp leader Alby (Aml Ameen) and his second Newt (Brodie-Sangster), who keep things going on an even keel and make sure every boy knows his place and contributes to the group. Bullyboy Gally (Poulter) could easily be a cardboard boy’s own villain, but turns out to be a nuanced foil for the confident and charismatic Thomas – riddled with self-doubt and a streak of nobility, along with an abiding fear of upsetting the precarious balance of their lives.

Naturally, since he’s our protagonist, Thomas has no intention of slotting into the quiet life of the Glade. He wants to know everything, uncover all the secrets and shake things up – he wants to be a Runner and find out what’s in the maze and beyond. His campaign of agitation rattles everyone and culminates in the arrival of the little band’s only female member Teresa (Kaya Scodelario).

 It’s a nicely set up adventure story with all the moving parts necessary for a fairly standard plot arc, from winning the boys over to leading them all in a rousing escape while winning the heart of the fair (and only) lass. But nothing is quite as simple as that. From the moment Gally turns out not be an unmitigated asshole, The Maze Runner turns expectations just enough to change a timeworn tale into a decent yarn. Gally is right almost as often as he is wrong and Thomas is no clean-cut hero – you know which one you should be rooting for, but there’s enough doubt to make it interesting.

When Teresa turns up, not a single boy eyes her with interest, because guess what? Even a teenage boy’s libido can be diverted with some fairly serious life-or-death issues and what comes up with her in the lift is definitely enough to keep them occupied. Not only is there no love triangle, there’s no love at all (at least for now, it is the first movie of a trilogy, after all) because everyone’s far too busy surviving, which is as it should be.

But all that is only enough to turn a mediocre action flick into a good one. What takes The Maze Runner a half step above that again is the ending, about which we’ll say absolutely nothing because anything would be a spoiler. That’s what elevates it to the sort of action movie you hope will be on at Christmas because it’s good enough to watch every year, like an Indiana Jones or a Die Hard. And what will see this hack in the cinema for the follow-up.
Review first published on The Register.

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