Following the breakout success of Twilight, Hollywood has been falling over itself to crank out as many ‘young adult’ novel adaptations as possible. Some franchises, like The Hunger Games and, to a lesser extent, Divergent earlier this year, have made an impact; others, such as Beautiful Creatures and The Mortal Instruments, have failed to ignite the same levels of interest. The Maze Runner, adapted from the first in a trilogy of books by James Dashner, is the latest off the production line. It has performed well so far at the international box office, and sequels are already in production.
The film was a co-production between Gotham Group and Temple Hill Entertainment, the latter company most notable for having produced the Twilight films. For The Maze Runner they’ve adopted a similarly canny ‘first feature’ approach, which is to go for material with a solid fan base (but potentially broader appeal), allied to a fairly modest budget. At $30m, The Maze Runner is in a similar ballpark to the first Twilight film, and is producing not dissimilar results, whereas Beautiful Creatures, for instance, which had double the budget, struggled to make back its production costs.
Wes Ball’s film drops us right into the action, as an unknown young man wakes up in a lift without any memory. Moments later he is thrown out into a large grassy area, ‘The Glade’, which is surrounded by towering stone walls. We soon learn that these walls form the inner edge of a giant maze. The Glade is home to a number of amnesiac young captives – all male – none of whom know anything about why they are there, or who has imprisoned them. Our protagonist (Dylan O’Brien) soon remembers his name, Thomas, and sets about learning the ‘rules’ of his new community. In short, the majority of the captives hang about maintaining their lives in The Glade, while specially selected ‘Maze Runners’ venture into the maze when the gates open at sunup, trying to map out as much as they can before hot-footing it back to safety lest they be trapped inside when the gates close at sundown. No one, we are told, has ever survived a night in the maze.
All this scene-setting moves along confidently, world-building and introducing characters simultaneously, until we’re at the half way point, and things begin to change. The ‘Gladers’ are a likable bunch, and there are good supporting performances here from the likes of Will Poulter (more imposing than we’ve seen him before), Thomas Brodie-Sangster (who will be well-known to fans of Game of Thrones), Ki Hong Lee as the primary Maze Runner, and youngster Blake Cooper as Chuck.
There is some silly dialogue in the early scenes as Glade leader Alby (Aml Ameen) and his peers constantly inform Thomas about this and that (“we call it ‘The Glade’”, “we call them ‘Grievers’”; “we call it ‘the changing’” and so on) but thankfully most of that is dispensed with when the action begins. Naturally, Thomas helps his fellow captors to find out the true nature of the maze, and a sequel is adequately teased. The revelations in the final third are fairly well done, though the nature of the story – there are reveals but the real truth remains hidden – means the ending is a tad flat. The increased action quotient also throws many of the characters into the background (in particular one late addition to the colony, who gets very little to do) so by the time the credits roll, it’s actually the supporting characters, some of whom won’t make it to the second film, who linger longest in the mind.
But that aside, Dylan O’Brien is a strong lead, and the fact that the supporting cast are so likable makes a second film a moderately exciting prospect, which is certainly more than can be said for some young adult a daptations. Wes Ball does a good job of establishing his world, and making the maze an imposing place to spend time – here’s hoping the second film will be able to build on that.