Watching The Maze Runner, I harked back to that small-time Canadian independent The Cube. Its premise, much like The Maze Runner, is simple: a group of people wake up and find themselves stranded inside literal cubes. One by one each of them begin to explore for an exit with one wrong move equalling a quick, violent death (one of them is sliced into tiny cubes!). The tension is heightened with every new room, the punishments becoming more and more severe.
Young adult cinema has become the new fashion; love or loathe it. With the obvious examples headlining practically every multiplex (Divergent, Hunger Games) the great mystery is how the decisions are made when crossing the adaptation divide. For every Hunger Games that pushes its own boundaries, not shying away from occasional violence and embracing the adult in young adult, there’s a Divergent that corners itself almost immediately, solely focusing on the young. If you’re thirteen and you’re watching your favourite book on screen this is probably of little concern for you.
The Maze Runner sits firmly in the Divergent thread. It’s not about a young hero coming of age and embracing the coming onslaught of chest and facial hair – though a metaphorical reading of this is definitely possible, if you’re so inclined – but a futuristic version of Lord of the Flies, with one boy challenging the communist rule.
If only it were as lusciously complicated as that. A teenager finds himself being transported rapidly north in a steel cage, ending the journey with a dozen leering faces all of them roughly the same age as he. His mind has been wiped – they all have suffered the same fate – but later he recalls one thing, his name: Thomas. Why this was remembered and nothing else is not so clear, just, “you remember that” by way of explanation.
Thomas quickly learns he is part of a three-year old gated community that is entirely encased with 19 year old boys. The gate is a monolithic maze that towers over them from every angle – it closes at night and opens during the day where runners (the faster, fitter kids) go exploring in search of an opening.
Perhaps their brain being wiped is way of explanation that the film doesn’t explore the reason why they are there beyond stilted, one-bit dialogue. (Memory escapes me for an example.) There are no intellectuals, no thinkers at this camp: division of labour is the operational ruling. The new kid, Thomas, is continually beaten down by Gally, the supposed King, when he challenges their complacency when it comes to escaping.
Director Wes Ball doesn’t even bother questioning why there are no females present for practically 98 percent of the film. He doesn’t explain the ending except to suggest a sequel. The monsters, called grievers, are a complete letdown – what could have been quite horrific and tension-filled scenes are given the ice-bucket treatment and left cold with monsters practically muted via robotic arms, like a child’s G-rated plaything.
The locations within the maze are quite striking however, as if access was granted to the abandoned sites used by the Soviets in the former USSR. Tall, pale buildings overrun by weeds offer a nihilistic backdrop to an otherwise horrific situation that is, once again, never delved into.
Ball could have made a fantastic film here. The Cube is a great starting point – both present a unique, bizarre situation that demands exploring – but sadly there’s no increased tension as the world is explored, no pressure on their lives beyond mere dot points, nothing to make the film more interesting beyond the limited question of “why are they here?” And there’s no reason to not include women in a science fiction film in 2014. That’s probably the biggest offence out of all.
Nicholas Brodie – follow Nick on Twitter here: @fodusempire