By Alan Mattli
Ladders. Only very rarely is it possible to chalk up most of a movie’s problems to a single word. But in Wes Ball’s The Maze Runner, adapted from James Dashner’s eponymous young adult dystopia published in 2009, what ultimately keeps it from soaring to the qualitative heights of comparable works – such as the politically charged entries into the Hunger Games franchise – really boils down to this: why would this film’s characters, thirty-odd teenage boys trapped in the centre of a gigantic maze with no memory of life before their arrival, not build ladders to escape the confines of the 200 feet-high walls that surround them?
Granted, their home is a green utopia, where they farm goats, plant vegetables, and live in a fairly harmonious society. But every day at sunrise, when the door to the maze opens, the titular class of “maze runners” disappears in its depths in order to find a way out, before invariably returning shortly before sundown after yet another unsuccessful search. As darkness falls, the door closes again, shutting in the boys and shutting out the dangerous spider-like “grievers” that roam the labyrinth at night. Nobody, we are told, has ever survived a night in the maze. So when the main protagonist and audience avatar Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) arrives here at the beginning of the film, he understandably questions his new companions’ escape plans: “Have you tried climbing to the top of the walls?”, he queries – but is swiftly dismissed. “The ivy doesn’t grow high enough”, the group’s second-in-command (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) replies, and the topic is never brought up again.
Here’s a society that lives in a place surrounded by trees, a society that is shown to have mastered the craft of carpentry, and that has clearly built ladders in the past – and yet, it has not occurred to them to combine these skills with their will to escape their prison. In its way, this inadvertence – which may well be explained away in Dashner’s novel – causes the whole narrative fabric of The Maze Runner to unravel. Mentioning the possibility of vertical escape and not jumping to the most obvious of conclusions opens up a plot hole that strains the notion of suspension of disbelief almost past breaking point. It creates reasonable doubt in the film’s inner logic and, indeed, invites more scrutiny than the story can take. Suddenly, certain characters’ actions seem not only unbelievable but downright moronic. (Thomas in particular is guilty of this, especially after he mindlessly, if helpfully, dashes into the maze just before sundown in order to save an injured runner.)
But even though The Maze Runner, in terms of story, is an utter shambles, it cannot be deemed an outright failure either. It may invoke practically all of young adult fantasy/science-fiction’s narrative tropes – circumventing only, interstingly, the love triangle (though such a development, in view of two planned sequels, is implied nonetheless) –, including a shameless Hunger Games appropriation; it may play out like a mashup of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Vincenzo Natali’s 1997 horror film Cube; but it is difficult to disregard director Wes Ball’s undeniable achievements.
Sporting rather refined imagery – bar a slight overuse of a shaking handheld camera – and being noticeably grimmer and grittier in tone than many other YA adaptations of the recent past, the movie, quite miraculously, manages to somewhat counteract its glaring problems by offering perfectly serviceable entertainment. Not once did I feel the need to check my watch (the tight 113-minute runtime helps) – on the contrary, although I was never able to buy into what the film does with its intriguing premise, I found myself eager to find out how this first part of the trilogy would end, even if, by the time the rushed, convoluted, dubiously sexist bait-and-switch resolution has played out, the whole affair has hopelessly descended into pure pulp fiction. It’s a mess, but a watchable one.
★★★½ (out of six)
For more reviews (in German), visit www.facingthebittertruth.com.