The Maze Runner Review: It's Lord of the Flies With a Low IQ
Let's start with the good. The Maze Runner was perfectly entertaining, generally well-acted, and was refreshingly low on sentimentality, particularly for a YA adaptation. Unfortunately, the film failed to capitalize on its intriguing premise, was populated with unrecognizable characters who formed thin, tinny relationships, and made only half-hearted efforts at world-building. Worst of all, it felt like a placeholder for future installments, particularly in light of an ending that managed to be both much more interesting than everything that came before it and make absolutely no sense.
The Maze Runner follows a young boy named Thomas (Teen Wolf's Dylan O'Brien, who may have the same generic good looks as The Giver's Brenton Thwaites, but is much more capable of carrying a film) who finds himself in the center of an intricate maze with no memory of who he is or how he got there. The other boys in the Glade have been there for three years, and Thomas threatens to destroy their delicate ecology with his curiosity and his tendency to challenge the status quo. But even in saying this, I'm making the interpersonal interactions sound much more interesting than they actually are. There's no Lord of the Flies-style ideological tension here, just boys yelling at each other and occasionally throwing punches. Thomas, as the protagonist, is infallible, while the viewer can tell that Will Poulter's character is nothing more than a macho antagonist from the first shot he's in. None of the relationships are developed or even approaching complex, which severely cuts down on the sadness factor when characters are inevitably picked off.
It's possible that all of this could be forgiven if the action was impeccable. The claustrophobic, unnerving setting certainly lends itself to thrills, and the suspense is high when the mystery of the maze is emphasized at the beginning. But, like in so many films, once the villain becomes less mysterious, it mostly ceases to be scary. The Grievers were somewhat unsettling, but often veered into silly territory. (And considering how long it took for any of them to manage to kill one, they didn't seem all that difficult to kill.) The film doesn't take full advantage of its premise from either an action/entertainment or psychological standpoint; when one of the runners (spoiler!) tells Thomas that they've mapped the entire maze without finding a way out, I had an excited moment in which I thought that the boys would fall into some kind of nihilistic despair about their entire lives being based on a search for something that can never be found. The movie somehow doesn't have time for this kind of complexity, but is also sort of boring.
The world-building efforts generally rang false. This could easily be James Dashner's fault (I can't say I've read any of the novels), but naming everything does not a realized world make. Especially when the names are this stupid and on-the-nose. The robotic spiders are Grievers, because they make the boys upset when they're stung (the effects of the sting are completely muddled and not fully explained, except that the sting "eats at the brain" in some way), the disease they cause is the Changing (no one pulled any muscles coming up with that one), the tall, thin structures that snap closed are called the Blades. Just like naming things doesn't equal world building, capitalizing nouns is not the same as naming things. The viewer never gets the sense that they're immersed in a specific world, just a watered-down Lord of the Flies/Hunger Games hybrid without any of the moral, psychological, or sociopolitical complexities.
First, the "twist" that comes near the middle of The Maze Runner is fairly idiotic. Thomas says, "The maze isn't what we thought it was. It's not a prison. It's a test." He says this really significantly, because that's the only way the viewer would know it's a twist. It's a maze. It changes every night, forcing the boys to do very complex problem-solving. Their memories have been wiped in order to make life more difficult. In the book series, they're even periodically given supplies. Was there seriously a question as to whether this was a test or not?
And then the ending, which establishes this entire film as a way to kill time before the sequels. The revelation of the actual premise of the film is rushed, and is fascinating, but essentially renders everything before it a waste of time. The idea that the boys (and girl) are being tested because their brain chemistry is "different" and somehow resistant to a worldwide plague is interesting, but it also makes no sense. If that were true, then why would they put their "special" specimens in a situation in which many of them would be killed? Even if they needed to place them in mortal danger for the tests, then couldn't these very powerful people just use virtual simulations? Regardless, it was the most intriguing part of the movie, which is a shame considering that it took up ten minutes in a two-hour running time.
The Maze Runner is clearly meant to be the male audience's answer to dystopian YA adaptations like The Hunger Games and Divergent. The cast is almost entirely male, and the female lead, Kaya Scoledario, is hardly given anything to do. The Hollywood Reporter quoted O'Brien as saying, "We don't have romance in the movie, and I love that, for the first time in one of these really cool YA stories. During what's going on [in other films], how is there romance happening? It doesn't make any sense - these kids are fighting for their lives, they're not gonna stop and kiss and cuddle, and I love that so much. It's so not YA, it's a sci-fi action thriller." The headline of the article containing this quote was "'The Maze Runner' Star Dylan O'Brien on Male-Targeted Franchise: 'It's So Not YA, It's Sci-Fi.'"
It needs to be said that the very idea that a franchise is aimed at young women simply because it has a female protagonist and incorporates romantic themes is depressing. No one claims that Harry Potter is only for boys because it has a male protagonist. As a result, the headline of this article, accompanied by O'Brien's statement (and I have no idea if he explicitly mentioned gender, so any sexism is not necessarily his fault), illustrates the complex relationship movies like The Hunger Games and Divergent have with feminism. Although they undoubtedly represent progress, as they both feature strong female protagonists in a genre that has historically been geared towards men, articles like this demonstrate that they also reinforce the notion that young girls can only be interested in sci-fi if the narrative is primarily focused on the romance.
Just to be clear, I don't begrudge The Hunger Games or Divergent having romantic storylines. Kaya Scoledario is clearly meant to be a love interest for O'Brien's character, even if it's relegated to the background. But that's the point. Katniss and Thomas are both human, they both have feelings for other people, but Katniss's narrative is ultimately defined by her relationships with men much more than Thomas's is defined by his relationship with Teresa. In the new trailer for the Hunger Games, Katniss threatens to abdicate her role as an emblem of the revolution against a tyrannical government unless her superiors promise to make the safety of her love interest a priority. Thomas may have feelings for Teresa, but he has more pressing concerns. So while I actually agree with O'Brien's statements, and I prefer The Maze Runner's attitude towards romance (although it would be difficult for them to boast restraint, since really none of the relationships were particularly developed), it's problematic that the media is characterizing the franchise as "male-oriented" for this reason. Prioritization of romance over strong character development and consistent mythology (I'm looking at you, Divergent) isn't "female" writing, it's poor writing, and there needs to be a distinction between the two.