"The Maze Runner" Loses Way With Loose Plotting

The opening moments of “The Maze Runner” thump with the urgency of an impending monsoon, promising a bevy of speaker-shaking thrills. A teenager awakens in the dark of a rising freight elevator, struggling to catch his breath. The metal bars around him rattle like a cage. Soon he’s thrust into the harsh light of a new beginning, unaware of his own name – Thomas – much less why a group of young men are staring at him like a fresh lab specimen. But “The Maze Runner” never delivers on its early potential, quickly falling down a chute of one-note characters and painfully sparse storytelling.

Why it took three screenwriters to adapt James Dashner’s 2007 novel is the film’s greatest mystery, with first-time director Wes Ball admirably teasing out all possible thrills from a boilerplate young adult dystopian premise. A small group of young men have arrived like Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), methodically – one a month for three years – slowly forming a small community in the Glade, a lush patch of land surrounded by four immense walls that hide a labyrinthine set of barriers. The titular maze closes itself off at night, leaving a select group of “runners” to explore it in the daylight, looking for an exit.

Where similarly closed-off films have featured a batch of omniscient characters – see “The Truman Show” or “The Cabin In The Woods” – “The Maze Runner” limits our knowledge to that of its leads, which is zilch. Thomas and company know next to nothing about their world, leaving an initially intriguing premise to slowly fade into oblivion. Characters frequently wonder aloud what their compatriots are doing, making for plenty of obvious retorts and tedious over-explanations. It’s preferable to silence, but barely.

The Glade and its accompanying maze are beautifully realized, but as the film’s only major setting, its appeal wears thin. Walls are walls, requiring one further hitch in the story – monsters. The maze conceals a group of half flesh-and-blood, half-mechanized spider-like creatures that come out to hunt at night. Since humans and spiders ostensibly split time in the maze, their inevitable face-off demands someone getting trapped. Much to the chagrin of pack leader Gally (Will Poulter), Thomas inexplicably throws himself inside to help two runners that are beyond help – one of the film’s many logic-challenged passages.

There are no female roles until the hour mark, at which point an unconscious teen named Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) arrives via elevator. Initially spurning her new cohabitants like a princess waving off a herd of drooling suitors, she goes on to bond with our hero. Some unexplained flashbacks reveal that the two have a history, also offering the pic’s first glimpse of a place outside the Glade – a stereotypically futuristic lab inhabited by important people in white coats. Teresa doesn’t add the meaningful female presence the film is missing, but not for a lack of trying on Scodelario’s part.

From there, “The Maze Runner” becomes a piece at war with itself. Part “Hunger Games” wannabe, part creature feature, it only finds an identity in its waning moments, an identity that many audiences are likely to reject outright. Its closing is welcome in its aim to explain everything we’ve just seen, but it, too, teeters on the brink of meaningless. Several main characters are made cannon fodder and an out-of-left-field cameo raises more questions than it answers.

Like many successful would-be blockbusters, Ball’s film teases better things to come. It remains to be seen how close its expected sequels will hew to Dashner’s books, but one thing is for sure – it won’t be hard to top this go-round. “The Maze Runner” feels like a classic toe-in-the-water franchise starter, holding back at every turn – especially in the writing stage – to see if audiences are interested in the first place. Opening weekend box office numbers suggest that they are, and the pic isn’t without its thrills, however empty they may be. But in a marketplace starved for inventiveness, another young adult cash-in won’t fool moviegoers more than once.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: September 19, 2014
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Wes Ball
Screenwriter: Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers, T.S. Nowlin
Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Aml Ameen, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Will Poulter
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements and intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, including some disturbing images)