Adapted from the bestselling Young Adult novel of the same name, Wes Ball’s The Maze Runner capitalizes on its source material, delivering a fast, fun, scary adventure/mystery that breathes new life back into the ailing realm of cinematic, dystopian YA adaptations. Though it largely follows familiar tropes and clichés of its given sub-genre, the quality of The Maze Runner’s execution elevates it above the rest of this year’s offerings made specifically for teens.
There’s a certain sort of appeal to stories of fights for survival out in a mysterious wilderness. It’s what hooked audiences on ABC’s LOST, the 2000 film Pitch Black, all the way back to Lord of the Flies. Traces of it appear in other media as well, the latter half of the first two Hunger Games films feature battle arenas filled with savage monsters and one small slip-up could be lethal. In many ways, the appeal of this is rooted in childhood games, playing outside in the woods, pretending there’s a monster chasing you. These stories are infused with fairly wild imagination, but I relatable sort of imagination that those who spent hours playing and imagining in their own “wilderness” will click into immediately. It’s on this level that first-time feature film director Wes Ball’s The Maze Runner clicks, excellently so. It taps right into this phenomenon at its most root level. The premise is simple: a group of young men are stuck living in a large enclosure called The Glade, outside their safety-zone lies a large labyrinth which is inhabited by vicious monsters, and they must fight to survive and, ultimately, find their way out of The Maze.
It’s the simplicity of this “backyard play-time” premise that made the original young adult novel, written by James Dashner, such a success, and the premise translates even better up on a movie screen. Those who relate to such sentiment should find much to enjoy in The Maze Runner, it’s an action-adventure flick with a distinctly old-school sensibility. Traditional characters, traditional set-up, traditional execution. All of which is ultimately refreshing in contrast to the fad-ish, instantly dated pandering of other YA adaptations that have come out this year (Divergent being the best example). The naturalistic simplicity of Maze Runner makes the whole affair feel like a modest classic from the very opening scene.
It’s sturdy and reserved, both in story and in visuals. Ball’s VFX experience is utilized in a surprisingly measured fashion here, and while the film tends to favor CGI over practical effects, the results always feel grounded and tangible.
The screenplay, written by T.S. Nowlin, remains largely faithful to the source material while smoothing over narrative rough patches in Dashner’s storytelling. It takes liberties when necessary, yet still feels distinctly like the world established in the original novel.for the most part, Nowlin’s script is a marked improvement over the original novel, character introductions run smoother, a wider range of characters manage to get in the spotlight (though this is occasionally to the detriment of some of the more central characters). In only one regard does the film adaptation falter in comparison to the book, and that’s in the final act. The original novel’s ending, while flawed, flowed with relative ease and still competently set up the next entry. The film version’s changes make room for additional bits of exposition, but the pacing and internal logic of the sequence suffers greatly as a result. The ending May leave a few non-book readers scratching their heads a bit, but it’s hardly disastrous, just rather underwhelming given how well adapted the rest of the film manages to be.
The cast is also a notable strong point. Dylan O’Brien as the designated hero, Thomas, possesses an easy charisma. And, while the character is not particularly remarkable in his traits, it’s easy to find yourself rooting for him, which is a credit to O’Brien’s instincts as a performer. The rest of the ensemble feels similarly naturalistic, with a casual, convincing chemistry between them. The Glade feels like a believable, functioning mini-society thanks to this excellent cast as well as Wes Ball’s apparently finely tuned instincts on pulling the best performances from his actors. One standout performance is that of Will Poulter, playing semi-antagonist, Gally. Gally’ portrayal in the film is much more subdued and nuanced than that of his book counterpart, and Poulter plays the role to perfection. Though a consistently antagonistic force, Poulter’s performance inspires empathy in a way that brilliantly underlines the themes of moral ambiguity at the story’s center. As with most great villains, the Ball and Poulter make it clear why Gally does what he does, digging to the root of fear that drives his actions. It’s a surprisingly complex portrayal for this type of movie, yet it’s one of the clearest elements which propels Maze Runner to the head of the pack.
Revolutionary it may not be, but The Maze Runner marks a surprisingly self-assured debut for director Wes Ball and a notably enjoyable romp amidst the dead fall movie season. It’s simple, it’s fun and it’s effective in a way that many films with far more bells and whistles fail to be. It’s encouraging to see new directors with fresh perspectives being given the chance to express their abilities through major franchises with large audiences. YA novel adaptations need not be a creative dead-zone, and The Maze Runner joins the ranks that include The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows as a film which proves just that.