The Hunger Games Lite
Adapting teen literature into film series has been a Hollywood mainstay for decades. Ever since Harry Potter started slinging spells at Hogwarts, it’s no longer a trend. It’s a genre. But for every Hunger Games there’s a stack of terrible Twilights and dumb Divergents. It’s tough to capture the attention of adult audiences when the main emotional drive is teen angst. Thanks to an interesting premise, a great cast and a series of very smart decisions, The Maze Runner rises to the top of the high school fiction pack.
The movie centers on Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), a teenage boy who awakes in a strange place with no memory of who he is. His new home is the Glade, a lush community of kids who arrived there in the same way and were forced to survive, Lord of the Flies style. Their leader Albi (Aml Ameen) takes young Thomas through the society him and his fellow refuges have created. Everyone does a job, everyone has a purpose.
But this isn’t a vacation. The garden is surrounded by an imposing, ever changing maze that’s guarded by the fearsome Grievers. Every day, runners scour the maze for an exit but if they don’t return at dusk, they’ll never be seen again. Thomas, not content on being a prisoner, feels compelled to defy the maze and find a way back to a home he’s completely forgotten.
As our fish out of water lead, O’Brien excels at balancing vulnerability with youthful courageousness. His arc from scared newbie to daring rebel happens naturally and creates a character worth following for 113 minutes. While many of his actions are driven by plot as opposed to character, O’Brien’s controlled performance makes him an easy to root for lead.
Another feather in the movie’s dirt covered hat is an outstanding supporting cast of young adults. Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Game of Thrones) is perfectly cast as the groups plucky yet thoughtful second in command. Will Poulter (We’re the Millers) also impresses by creating a sympathetic villain with strong motivations. They genuinely feel like a tight community of kids pulled together by circumstance.
The great performances bolster a well-executed story full of smart decisions and fun ideas. The film’s strongest aspect is the intelligent way it hands out clues and information regarding the mysterious Glade. While this is most likely a function of James Dashner’s original novel, first time director Wes Ball’s treatment of the source material services both the book’s legions of fans and newbies alike.
Ball also avoids many teen action clichés. For example, when the lone female character is introduced halfway through (Kaya Scodelario as Teresa), Ball avoids hammering in a cheesy love story. The Griever creatures are also well designed and suitably scary, important for the sometimes frantic and ADD action sequences.
It’s also surprisingly “goopy.” Ball doesn’t shy away from blood, guts and the often violent deaths of the Glade’s under 21 citizens. Its rated PG-13 but if you have kids who are prone to bad dreams, you may want to consider leaving them at home.
The movie’s main problem is a forced, Hunger Games style ending that feels completely unnatural. After an epic high stakes battle, ten minutes of last minute exposition kills the momentum. While I understand the filmmakers had to set us up for the eventual sequel (coming in 2015), it could have been done with a little more tact.
But even if you choose to leave Junior home, by all means check it out yourself. On the surface a knockoff of Jennifer Lawrence’s exceptional dystopian fantasy, The Maze Runner makes a case for its own existence. With solid action, an interesting central mystery and a believable tribe of youngin’s fighting for survival, Hollywood’s latest teenage series is also one of the best.
Score 8 out of 10