One of the biggest criticisms laid of the current filmmaking environment is that too much of it is built towards creating franchises, rather than crafting singular experiences. This criticism gains some traction in the latest YA adaptation The Maze Runner, a film that seems to get less enjoyable as it begins to lay down the groundwork for future installments. The first two thirds of the film manage to be fairly exciting, with well directed action sequences providing a measure of immediacy to the proceedings. But as the twisty revelations pile on, the movie just becomes a pile of messy cliffhangers that seem to defy all logic.
Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) wakes up in a rapidly ascending freight elevator, with no memory of his past prior to that point. The elevator emerges in The Glade, a small plot of land populated by a community of young men who all arrived under the same circumstances. A massive maze surrounds The Glade, and certain members of the community known as “runners” have spent the last three years mapping it out, hoping to find a way to escape. The Glade has established a very strict set of rules meant to keep the community safe and functioning, but Thomas isn’t satisfied living trapped at the center of this maze. His curiosity and courage bring the boys of the Glade closer than ever to escape, but it also brings a load of danger and trouble for the community.
This is a case of the mystery being more interesting than the answers. The film’s setup is pretty compelling, and there are potent themes to be mined from the tension of a community in peaceful equilibrium and the newcomer’s yearning to break free of his imprisonment. The plot can get pretty clunky and many of the characters are thin, but the film is generally fine as long as it is about figuring out the perils of the maze. It at least provides the film with it most exciting sequences, which pit the outclassed protagonists against terrifically designed, well-realized maze monsters.
But the film grows sluggish as it stumbles towards its solution. Perhaps this will all pay off better in the sequels, but the answers provided at the end of this movie actually undermine much of what went on before it. Whatever metaphor might have been developed through previous events is mostly undone by the banality of the standard end-of-the-world scenario. The revelations come fast and furious, and the film doesn’t seem to care much about clarity in the moment. It just pushes out the information, confident that there will be another movie in future where they can all clear this up.
But otherwise, this film is well put together. Director Wes Ball probably has a bright future ahead of him directing big budget features. He puts together a couple of really stunning sequences that show a real skill at handling tension. Dylan O’Brien does a great job of selling his character’s curiosity and general discomfort with inaction. His co-actors lend some personality to what are otherwise really thinly written roles.
Perhaps The Maze Runner will emerge as a much better experience once the next books in the series are adapted. But in the absence of psychic powers or time travel, we can only judge what is currently available to us. The film is solidly entertaining for a good chunk of its runtime, but the appeal wears down as the film goes beyond the walls of the maze, largely abandoning the responsibilities of good storytelling for the sake of a series of revelations that do little to elucidate on the plight of the main characters. All it really does is make vague gestures towards a future installment. It’s all fun enough for a while, but it leaves one terribly unsatisfied.