If it weren’t the first in a trilogy, The Maze Runner would be a legitimately great time at the movies.
Ever since the Harry Potter series made enough money at the box office to buy God five times over, every Hollywood studio has been falling over themselves to find a Young Adult literature series that they can adapt, and franchise the crap out of, of their own. Some have been giant successes – Twilight, The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Chronicles of Narnia kinda sorta to a degree. Others impaled themselves on the first hurdle – The Golden Compass, Eragon, I Am Number Four, last year’s The Mortal Instruments. Everybody wants in on that pie because getting it right sets you up with a lucrative franchise for the next few years, whilst getting it wrong equates to a loss of chump-change and one can just go right back to the well and try again until they get it right.
The problem isn’t so much that this approach leads to any old crap getting picked up for adaptationing (you can make a good movie out of anything after all), the problem is that this approach leads to a lot of first instalment films that don’t actually wrap anything up. Their desire to hook audiences back in for future go-arounds on the money train often leads to majorly unsatisfying endings that can lead to viewers feeling cheated, like they’ve been conned out of a full story. The Golden Compass did this, Eragon did this, Divergent just did this six months ago… Notice how it seems to be a trend of the not-good ones?
The Maze Runner is a surprisingly great one, which is what makes its total failure of an ending all the more maddening. For about 90 of the film’s 113 minutes, this is a tense, well-acted, very exciting, if formulaic science-fiction thriller that surprised the absolute hell out of me. Unfortunately, its ending, the thing that should have sealed the deal and got me all set for the sequel, is an infuriatingly sloppy and unsatisfying mess that deflates my opinion of the film significantly. Hell, if the film had just stopped right as it was about to jump off a cliff, like literally just cut to credits with nothing else, I would have preferred that to the ending I got.
Admittedly, I am getting ahead of myself, so let’s focus on the stuff that was good before I have to address the pink elephant. Our film begins with a young boy (Dylan O’Brien) waking up disoriented in a crate elevator with no memory of anything. He’s been forcibly sent to a place called The Glade, entirely populated by boys his age and surrounded on all sides by a giant ever-shifting maze that seems inescapable and is home to some very dangerous monsters that patrol it at night after its entrance closes. The boys, having mostly given up hope of ever escaping, have concocted a strict, regimented, yet fair society, run by a boy called Albi (Aml Ameen), that the new arrival, who eventually remembers his name to be Thomas (the only piece of info the people who put the boys there let them keep), proceeds to threaten due to his curious nature and unending desire to escape.
As you may guess, the film proceeds along with the central mysteries of “how do we escape?” and “who put us here?” but, and this is crucial, the mysteries aren’t what drive the entire film. Yes, the characters search for both is a central tenant to their actions, but the film is driven by said actions and how they react each other. That’s what the film is primarily interested in, the characters. And, yeah, they may be relatively stock and it couldn’t be more obvious which of them would end up siding against Thomas when the chips are down if they wandered around with giant glowing neon signs advertising this fact, but each of them are well-written enough to overcome their stock traits. There’s one character whose eventual death is telegraphed within about three seconds of their turning up, but they still make an impression beyond that due to above-average writing and Blake Cooper’s very earnest performance.
On that note, performances are of a higher calibre than I’m used to seeing in this sub-genre. Dylan O’Brien is very able at selling a boy out-of-his-depth and has a likeable enough screen presence that can carry him through the moments where he ends up with a blanker face than is necessary. Other standouts include Thomas Brodie-Sangster – Jojen from Game of Thrones, before you ask – who is a very reassuring and warm presence, fitting his character very well, and continuing rising star Will Poulter, who busts out a deep American accent and spends 113 minutes apologising for Plastic with a very convincing and slightly more nuanced performance as the film’s de-facto villain than the script seems willing to give him.
Effects are great, especially so considering the miniscule $34 million price tag – for comparison, Divergent cost $85 million and… didn’t look like it cost $85 million, let’s put it that way. The maze itself benefits from being predominately shot tightly, amping up the claustrophobia and having the actual design of the segments of the maze be striking enough to make it clear as to where the characters currently are. The monsters that roam the maze, known as Grievers because all YA books need a whole new vocabulary of their own for some reason, have genuinely disturbing designs that make them look just as unnerving in the day, when the increased light should highlight the lower quality of the CG, as they are shrouded in shadow. Cleverly, the film also reigns in any desire to go giant with its action sequences, enabling the relatively low budget to remain inconspicuous unless you’re already aware of it.
I realise that this review is really… dry, I think is the word. Here’s the thing, Maze Runner, before everything goes to hell, doesn’t really do anything new or different. Again, it is formulaic, the eventual splitting of the community into those who side with Thomas and those who don’t is telegraphed from about the sixth minute of the film at the latest, and the metaphors for adolescence aren’t exactly subtle – Grievers attack by stinging their victim, which causes their body to change, their mind to disintegrate and the victim to become extremely emotional and hos-it’s a metaphor for puberty, alright. But, and here’s the other thing, none of that really matters, because the film itself is a really bloody good one.
As an example: I was on edge during the entire segment of the film where Thomas inevitably runs into the maze before it closes for the night despite being told not to. The tightness of the camera, the sparse usage of sound and music – and not heralding the eventual jump scare with the score equivalent of dropping a laptop on a MIDI keyboard set to “Orchestra” – the Grievers being shrouded in shadow enough to keep up the mystery but not so much as to make them murky indecipherable blobs, and also with concern for Thomas himself. He might have amnesia but, crucially, he still has a personality, a likeable and understandable personality (his desire to escape whilst saving the decent members of The Glade makes him a very accurate audience surrogate), so I was rooting for him to survive the night. He was obviously going to, the film was only about 30 minutes in by this point and it’s not Psycho, but the scene was still tense and exciting anyway.
That sequence is where it becomes clear that the film has a full-on momentum built up, the kind that can sweep a viewer along to the finish and make the majority of problems seem inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. The formulaic and rigid adherence to the classic three-act structure do keep it from becoming a truly great film, but they don’t distract from the quality on display. The tone is very serious and straight-laced, sometimes to a fault, but that means that terrible attempts at humour or mood-undercutting moments don’t interfere. A lone girl (Kaya Scodelario, who I am very happy to see finally get non-Skins related work) is introduced into The Glade at the hour mark and whilst the film does quite literally nothing with this fantastic idea – her purpose is basically to walk around wearing a giant arrow that screams “I WILL BE IMPORTANT IN THE SEQUEL” – she gets by on the charm of her actress and not being forcefully shoved into a romance arc.
So, the film was going great! What looked to be the final showdown had wrapped, the climax had basically been reached, and answers were about to be given. All The Maze Runner had to do was not botch the landing and I could make it my Best Surprise of 2014, slap it with an enthusiastic recommendation and wait with fevered anticipation for the sequel.
Then the ending happened. I’m not about to divulge spoilers and specifics, don’t panic, but this is the most frustratingly poor ending I have come across in a film all year. A year, lest we forget, with Need for Speed and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, so you know it has to be a bad ending. It has a reveal as to the nature of The Glade and the reason why the teenagers were thrown in there that both raises way more questions than it does answers (the kind of reveal that’s used in the middle of the film rather than the end), is the most generic and boring answer that one can think of for the premise, and is delivered in the dullest manner possible. There’s another final showdown crowbarred in there for almost literally no reason, an atrociously handled sudden death that has all of its possible effect sucked out by its unearned nature (almost like it was thrown in to stem complaints that nobody truly important died during the film), another incredibly obvious and boring reveal, and a final shot that is blatant “COME BACK NEXT YEAR FOR THE THRILLING CONCLUSION!”
Look, there is nothing wrong with sequel teasing and cliffhangers in and of themselves. The problem comes when they are deployed in the first instalment of something, because then I don’t feel like I’ve gotten a full story. I feel like I’ve been swindled, that I need to fork over more money in the future to get the second part of what will inevitably turn out to be a quadrilogy. It may be a decent stopping-place plot-wise, but only one goal has been properly fulfilled and too many questions and events and plots are dropped on me at literally the last minute that I feel like the last 30-or-so minutes were forcibly cut from the film and withheld until the sequel, which is infuriating. Especially since it’s all done so goddamn sloppily, another reason why the final showdown and its sudden death have no impact and feel so awkward.
That, ultimately, is why I am disappointed with The Maze Runner. For so much of its runtime, it is a huge surprise and does pretty much everything right. To see it face-plant so thoroughly, so eagerly, so blatantly on the cusp of the finish line is legitimately aggravating because, dammit, it was this goddamn close! I visibly went from “Hell, yes! Bring on the sequel!” to “*disappointed exasperated groan* Well, I guess I’ll watch the sequel cos it’s my job to,” as it went on. If really disappointing endings to otherwise great films don’t bother you too much, then you’ll likely wonder why I am so worked up about it. But the ending to The Maze Runner is just so, so bad that it’s tainting my opinion of the rest of the film. I went in with no expectations and still left disappointed.
This should have been great. Instead, it’s just disappointingly good.
Callie Petch goes up to Amazonia.