“The Maze Runner” – Early Review by Daniel Rester

The Maze Runner  Amazes in a Few Ways

The Maze Runner

Early Review by Daniel Rester

The Maze Runner is the latest in the craze for young adult book-to-film adaptations, this one based on the novel of the same name by James Dashner. It’s already said, too, that the film will be followed by a sequel if the first does well in theaters. While I’m getting a bit tired of seeing sequel after sequel at the movie theaters, this is one of the films that I think needs the sequel treatment. It’s also one where I actually want a sequel, too.

Runner doesn’t mess around in setting up its story. It gets right to the point in throwing us into a strange elevator with a young man (played by Dylan O’Brien). When the gate opens, the man is met by several other young men. He also doesn’t really remember anything, though he soon comes to remember that his name is Thomas.

Thomas soon finds out that he and the others are trapped in a field-like area surrounded by giant walls. All of the men must do their duties in order to survive, such as woodcutting, growing food, etc. They are also sent a new person and supplies each month from the mysterious elevator.

Beyond the walls is a seemingly unsolvable maze. The community of men sends out “runners” each day to try and find a way out of the environment. However, the maze is dangerous at night as it is guarded by nasty creatures called Grievers.

Thomas is in the company of many young men, though we meet only key players in the community. While these characters – and Thomas – don’t have much backstory due to them not being able to remember things, each of them has distinguishable personality types and roles in the group. Ki Hong Lee plays Minho, the main runner that Thomas soon finds himself doing missions with. Then there are Alby (Aml Ameen) and Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), the leader-like man of the group and the second-in-charge type. Blake Cooper also plays Chuck, a scared younger boy who befriends Thomas, and Will Poulter plays Gally, a tough guy who is determined to keep everyone together.

Things begin to mix up as soon as Thomas arrives, with Gally thinking that Thomas is a problem. The men are also soon greeted by a lone female named Teresa (Kaya Scodelario). Thomas tries to push the others into trying to escape the mysterious maze, which unfolds more surprises for the group of people.

It’s these constant surprises that kick Runner into a huff-and-puff gear of excitement. I have not read Dashner’s novel, so I cannot make comparisons there. However, my theater crowd included many cheering fans of the book, so I guess that’s a good sign. But you don’t have to be a fan to enjoy this is what I am trying to say. I certainly do have interest to read the novel now, though.

The screenplay (by Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers, and T.S. Nowlin) sets up the premise in a standard young-adults-must-fight-together story fashion. But it’s where the movie goes next that delivers. The writers allow the main characters to all have small but shining moments, though some of them are attached with melodramatic dialogue at times. Their interactions (though Gally becomes a bit unbelievable at times) feel genuine for the situations, and their journey becomes more intriguing and exciting as it moves along. The conclusion does leave some purposeful plot holes and cliffhangers though, so here’s to hoping for that sequel so those issues can be forgiven.

The involving story is brought to life by director Wes Ball, his technical wizards, and a terrific young cast. Ball has only directed short films before this, so this is a pretty impressive feature film debut. He and cinematographer Enrique Chediak really know how to fill the screen with the various visual effects and Marc Fisichella’s excellent production design, though Ball never lets these things overcrowd the plot. He expertly handles the character interactions and story twists while also providing a brisk pace and delivering certain visual punches at just the right time. Some of the wide shots used to aid the overall aesthetic are also very eye-opening, set to grand music by John Paesano. The sound design of the picture is also top-notch and worth mentioning as well, with the Griever and maze noises allowing for superior diegetic sounds.

Ball’s treatment at times feels like some of the 80s and 90s adventure filmmaking styles. Spielberg even came to my mind, with one exhilarating “maze blade” sequence in Runner reminding me of the memorable boulder run in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). It’s refreshing to find a director who seems to favor the “less is more” effect and elements of surprise in his action. One extended scene is a bit too monster movie-esque, but even it is still fun. Ball understands how to put us on the level of the characters, feeling the danger they are in on the screen and finding things out with them. His handling of the ending feels a bit standard-issue, but everything else up to that point I found to be thrilling and interesting.

The cast keeps the energy high as well. O’Brien is an excellent lead, presenting Thomas’ curiosity and bravery well as things unfold. My personal favorite was Brodie-Sangster as Newt, though, as I found the actor to have a distinct personality and likability about him. Only Poulter goes a bit over-the-top at times, and I feel like Scodelario could have had more to do. Otherwise the casting and acting is great given the young adult material.

There are so many meh young adult book-to-film adaptations that it’s refreshing when we get the good ones. Runner isn’t in the same league as the best of the Harry Potter films, but it is far better than the regular movie outings of this kind. The film has its little issues, but it’s exhilarating and surprising in quite a few ways. It’s also establishing a bigger story. I hope we get to see that story unfold more with a sequel, as things in Runner need to be cleared up and some further layers would be welcome. Even so, it stands on its own right now as a fun adventure-thriller piece of entertainment.

Score: 3 ½ out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: A-).

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements and intense sequences of sci-fi violence including some disturbing images).

Runtime: 1 hour and 53 minutes.

U.S. Release Date: September 19th, 2014.

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