Summer blockbuster season has become a proverbial graveyard for adaptations of popular Young Adult (YA) novels, the number of complete and utter failures outweighing the successes of franchises like Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games and Divergent. The list of films that have come and gone with barely a whimper is lengthy with Beautiful Creatures, The Mortal Instruments, If I Stay, Vampire Academy, Beastly, Inkheart, The Lovely Bones, The Golden Compass, The Host, Eragon, The Giver, City Of Ember, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant, Bridge To Terabithia, Tomorrow When The War Began and I Am Number Four just a handful. Yet studios just can’t stay away from the prospect of any semi well-read and positively reviewed ‘teen’ novel becoming a potential goldmine. And that’s where The Maze Runner comes in.
It’s hard not to step into a cinema knowing that what you’re about to see is a YA adaptation and not feel a little sceptical. Perhaps that’s why Wes Ball’s take on James Dashner’s best-selling dystopian novel is such an unexpected surprise. Set in an unspecified dystopian future, the audience join young man Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) as he is carried from somewhere deep underground in a metal cage, arriving on the surface with a jolt and a harsh ray of light. The cage opens up in the middle of a valley, with the teen surrounded by the curious yet expecting faces of dozens of men around his age. Thomas can’t remember anything at first, and although his name comes back to him the past remains a mystery. After a shaky beginning he is introduced as the latest member to a mish-mash tribe of lads who survive in the meadow through a delicate system where everyone does their part: whether that’s harvesting crops or cutting fire wood. They’re kind of like Peter Pan’s Lost Boys, except instead of being surrounded by Neverland they are trapped by an enormous maze.
Select members of the group – the fastest and the fittest – are dubbed runners and tasked with sprinting around the maze during the daylight hours in an attempt to memorise it and find a way out. But they have a strict rule: you must be back before dusk, when the entrance to the maze is closed until the remaining morning. Those unlucky enough to be locked on the other side never survive the night, Thomas is told, due to the ever-changing nature of the mechanical beast and terrifying creatures known as the Grievers that roam inside. With none of the Lost Boys able to remember their pasts, the newest and most curious member of the group begins pushing the boundaries of both the social structure and the maze itself. When the first and only girl (Kaya Scodelario) is sent into the glade saying that she is the last one ever, the band of teens become determined to find a way to escape the maze rather than continue to survive it.
It was clear from the very first episode of Teen Wolf that Dyan O’Brien was the most talented member of the cast, offering more than ethnic temptation abs and sweaty stares. He was quick-witted and gifted with brilliant comedic timing, but for the first time he truly has the chance to stretch his acting chops as the lead – not the sidekick – in The Maze Runner. He is well and truly up for the job, proving he not only has leading man potential but he’s an interesting and intense performer. He’s backed up by a stellar cast of youngins, and by youngins we of course mean actors in their twenties who regularly play teenagers. Like O’Brien, Will Poulter too gets to shift type from goofball to complicated villain while Game Of Thrones actor Thomas Brodie-Sangster continues to impress with complex characters roles. Ki Hong Lee and Dexter Darden also deliver in what is an impressively diverse cast, especially considering the tendency to white wash in the YA universe.
The trailers and poster trumpet The Maze Runner as a thrilling action adventure, and although it certainly is that, it’s also genuinely terrifying. The overarching mystery and sinister stature of the maze bring genuine creep factor, but it’s the creature design of the Grievers that is truly goosebump worthy. There are some nail-biting and endlessly uncomfortable scenes inside the maze, let alone dozens of other equally brutal moments that set this apart from other films within the genre. Anyone under 15 is going to have a hard time watching this, and although it’s not particularly gory, it’s what you don’t see that’s just as horrifying. It’s the implied violence and the sound effects that keep the terror out of sight but not out of mind. Thankfully all notions of romance or love triangles are complete avoided, with the characters given more important shit to do than think about their genitals.
The only let down is perhaps – no spoilers – the explanation of the final mystery, which feels a bit stunted and rushed after a film that so carefully took its time creating an interesting and detailed social structure within a science-fiction universe. ‘Surprise’ pretty much sums up the very intense ride that is The Maze Runner, with it sprinting ahead of the YA pack in leaps and bounds. It’s an impressive piece of popcorn cinema, with a tiny budget of $30million being stretched to unbelievable means. The crew too are surprising, with director Wes Ball having a strange collection of previous credits that have seen him do everything from visual effects on Beginners to graphics on Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant. The production and writing team were equally as inexperienced, with Ball truly proving himself with this feature as someone who can offer a unique take on a popular genre a la Duncan Jones.
Like a cross between Jumanji and Lord Of The Flies, The Maze Runner is somewhat of a rarity. It’s a YA-adaptation that actually works. It manages to be terrifying and entertaining at the same time, while delivering a message outside of a teenage love triangle.
Maria Lewis – follow Maria on Twitter here: @moviemazz or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.