‘Runner’ gets lost in its own maze

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Adapted from James Dashner’s young adult best seller of the same name, “The Maze Runner” is the latest post-apocalytic thriller to reach the screen. It follows such recent dystopian films with adolescent protagonists as “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent,” and “The Giver.” The film fuses genre conventions with a permutation of the Minotaur myth.

A promotional image from the "Maze Runner" Facebook page.

A promotional image from “The Maze Runner” Facebook page.

As “The Maze Runner” opens, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien from television’s “Teen Wolf”) is awakened from unconsciousness by loud, rattling industrial sounds. Thomas realizes that he is in a huge freight elevator, which is headed upwards. How did he get there? He has no idea. Where was he immediately before being in the elevator? Again, it is a total blank for him. In fact, he doesn’t remember anything. Initially, he can’t even recall his own name.
The elevator comes to an abrupt halt and its top opens to the open air. A bunch of racially diverse, teenaged boys are staring down on the protagonist.
Upon climbing out of the elevator, Thomas immediately runs afoul of Gally (Will Poulter). The swaggering brute forms an instantaneous disdain for the new arrival. He challenges the significantly smaller Thomas to a fight. Gally remains Thomas’ implacable adversary throughout the film.
Thomas discovers that he has been transported to an area, called the Glades. It’s an open field, dotted with primitive dwellings. About fifty boys live there in circumstances, which recall “Lord of the Flies.” Like Thomas, they can’t remember their prior lives or how they arrived at this mysterious remote location. The boys have devised a social hierarchy and a set of rules.
Devoid of adult supervison, two of the older boys. Alby (Aml Ameen) and Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) help to maintain order in this single-generation community. They explain to Thomas that every month, supplies marked WCKD, and a new boy are transported to the Glades on the freight elevator.
Surrounding the Glades is a large, labyrinthine structure. It is not a static entity, but has an internal configuration, which changes daily. Each morning, a door to the maze opens, only to close that night. There is supposedly no route within this maze, which allows for escape from the Glades. Undaunted, a team of runners, supervised by Minho (Ki Hong Lee), tries to map it out. Perhaps, there is a way to navigate the maze to freedom after all. These efforts are fraught with peril. The maze is occupied by Grievers, giant, scorpion-like creatures. They have a mechanical gait and emit a venomous goop.
The large cast consists of characters, who are largely undeveloped and one-dimensional. In the lead role, Dylan O’Brien is pleasant, but rather bland. Will Poulter, memorably portrayed an amiable nebbish in the comedy, “We’re the Millers.” Here, he plays a fundamentally different sort of character. As Thomas’ principal antagonist, Poulter does an excellent job of creating a belligerent, mean-spirited jerk. Poulter is aided by the fact that he has the look of a stereotypical bully. Playing the elder statesmen of the Glades, Aml Ameen and Thomas Brodie-Sangster capture the qualities of thoughtful young men. Each convincingly projects innate leadership skills. A noticeably buff Ki Hong Lee has a natural screen presence. However, he is hemmed in by a screenplay, which offers him little opportunity to prove whether he can act. As Teresa, the final and only female arrival to the Glades, Kaya Scodelario ends up being a token distaff character. Although she is surrounded by a bunch of young guys, who are presumably full of raging hormones, the film is curiously devoid of any sexual tension. Most of the remaining cast register as scene-filling cyphers.
I give kudos to the casting director , Denise Chamian, for making an obvious effort to recruit a racially diverse array of actors. Aml Ameen, who is African-American, and Ki Hong Lee, who is Korean born, portray two of the film’s most admirable characters. The principal villain, Gally, and his cadre of supporters, are pasty-faced Eurocentrics.
This marks the debut by Wes Ball as a feature film director. He operates his own fx firm. With this mind, Ball’s restrained use of special effects is laudable. He helms a few fast-paced, exciting scenes. This includes the inevitable confrontation between the lads and the Grievers.
“The Maze Runner” is a film, which relies on an understanding of spatial dynamics. However, it is a daunting challenge to grasp the parameters of the ever-shifting maze.
A pivotal plot device in the film’s denouement is difficult to reconcile with spatial considerations or character motivations. As the denouement progresses, it devolves into a confusing mess. The film offers no dramatic closure. It becomes apparent that the film is little more than an unduly long trailer for ensuing sequels.
“The Maze Runner” is a film about an actual labyrinth. Alas, its disorienting screenplay leaves viewers trapped in a conceptual maze.
** PG-13 (for thematic elements and intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, including some disturbing images) 113 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

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