Review: The Maze Runner (2014)

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Director: Wes Ball
Screenwriters: Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers & T.S. Nowlin
Based on the novel of the same name by James Dashner
Cast: Dylan O’Brien, Aml Ameen, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Ki Hong Lee, Will Poulter, Blake Cooper, Kaya Scodelario & Dexter Darden
Runtime: 113 min // Certificate: 12a

“There once was an Anneka, who begat an Ulrika, from whose career dip sprung a Davina. All squirted from the same hole. Like herpes they spread from TV-am, armed only with the charm of incompetence.”

The above quote from the TV show Absolutely Fabulous sums up my feelings towards the current explosion – and, in many ways, implosion – of the “Young Adult” market rather well. Faceless, interchangeable stories, all sprung from the same lazy ideas, written with a very narrow demographic in mind, which it then patronises and belittles with insultingly pedestrian characters and storylines. Last month it was The Giver; this month it’s The Maze Runner; next month it’s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (because as we all know, trilogies are made up of 4 chapters these days…) I mean, when will this incessant nightmare end? When? WHEN!?

Now, I’m not one of those cynics who are automatically dismissive of anything aimed at the lucrative youth market. After all, much to my chagrin, I was a teenager once. When done right, youth fiction serves a real purpose and I’m supportive of anything and everything that gets teenagers reading and thinking. Furthermore, in the right hands some of these stories and adaptations can be genuinely very good. That 90% of them are concerned with an inevitable dystopian future is no real surprise; after all, teenagers have always been suspicious of authority, resentful of the state of the World that has been bequeathed to them, and terrified of what those dastardly “old adults” (as opposed to the “Young Adults” that these stories are aimed towards) might do if they go unchecked. That so many of these dystopias are as crude, as interchangeable and as patronisingly PG-friendly as they are – that’s the real problem.

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The Maze Runner, the latest offering from the apparently endless production line of identikit Young Adult adaptations that are currently keeping the movie industry afloat single-handedly, marks a new nadir for the genre. It follows Thomas (O’Brien; Teen Wolf), a teenager who wakes up in a cage in a pre-industrial area known as the “Glade” with no recollection of how he got there. Surrounded by a vast, dangerous and mechanical maze, the Glade acts as the permanent home to a collection of similar male teenagers, some of whom have been there for over 3 years, who have created a primitive but functional society based on classic tribal roles. Curious and determined to escape, Thomas quickly establishes himself as a natural new leader and, with the help of all his attractive friends (I assume there’s some sort of magical Hair and Beauty Product Tree in the Glade…) and a token female (Teresa, played by Kaya Scodelario; Wuthering Heights), soon begins unearthing the answers that have doggedly eluded the other Gladers for the last few years.

What we have then is a film in which a bunch of teenagers, in hoc to all the worst excesses of both mawkishness and primitivism, are trapped in the epicentre of a vast maze that is guarded by killer part-spider, part-robot creatures, that somehow manages to be unconscionably boring. It packs no peril, no thrills and no sense of immediacy, such is its determination to cycle through a predictable, mundane and inert story in which the characterisation extends no further than that of base caricature. We have the chosen hero, the token girl (whose sole purpose is to further said hero’s journey), the natural born leader, the damaged “villain”, the diplomat, the humorous overweight one, the divergent one… no, wait, sorry, wrong film; never mind. With three screenwriters at the helm and a novel from which to adapt the story, you’d think a certain amount of character work might slip through the net, but it all seems to have been cobbled together by a bunch of disparate entities that simply refused to collaborate with one another on the project.

Furthermore, whilst the performances are consistent and passable, the cast have absolutely nothing to work with, and it really does show. O’Brien is a likeable lead, but whenever he’s asked to display any kind of emotional turmoil he hams it up to the Nth degree, while the rest of the cast carry themselves admirably but dispassionately through a script that offers none of them a chance to prove themselves. If there’s a stand-out – and I’m not sure there is, but if there is one – then it might be Will Poulter (We’re the Millers), who at least gets to have a bit of fun with his pantomime villain-esque role, but for the most part the script’s tedious air of solemnity and profundity prevents anyone from making a mark on the material. Also, though it is perhaps cruel to suggest that they were all cast on the basis of their aesthetic rather than their thespian qualities, that’s the impression one gets, even though none of the performances drop too far below the acceptable range of adequacy.

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The Maze Runner is dour, derivative dreck that revels in comfortable mediocrity without a care in the World. So content is the whole enterprise to wallow in the crude, foetid dystopian facelessness of its own design that it becomes formulaic to the point of heavy-handed parody. Were a satirist to produce this film as a comical example of all the failings and trappings of the youth-friendly dystopian genre, people would no doubt criticise it for being much too crass and obvious. It is a base, cynical and unfailingly insipid hotchpotch of every tired YA trope in the “Teenage Dystopias for Dummies” guidebook – a “Lord of the Flies” for bedwetters, if you will – that has no desire or drive to set itself or its characters apart from the Tris Priors or Panems of this World.

I accept that genre-fatigue played a significant part in my adverse reaction to this film, but even without its overreliance on aping every other teenage dystopian novel, film, comic book and video game on the market right now, it’s still a dull, cumbersome and plodding film that goes nowhere and says nothing. Fans of The Hunger Games will feel a sense of gloomy déjà vu, while those of us who find such films wearisome and drab will be left wondering when this inexorable feculence will end. Alas, with two sequels already announced, it looks like this trend of repetitive and stodgy YA adaptations will just continue to expand exponentially until all that’s left are the ashes and bones of once intelligent stories.

Now that’s my idea of a dystopia…

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