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Dustin Putman

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The Maze Runner  (2014)
2 Stars
Directed by Wes Ball.
Cast: Dylan O'Brien, Aml Ameen, Ki Hong Lee, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Will Poulter, Blake Cooper, Kaya Scodelario, Dexter Darden, Chris Sheffield, Joe Adler, Alexander Flores, Jacob Latimore, Randall D. Cunningham, Patricia Clarkson, Don McManus.
2014 – 113 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for violence, language, thematic elements and some disturbing images).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 17, 2014.
"The Maze Runner," adapted by scribes Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers and T.S. Nowlin from the 2007 novel by James Dashner (the first in a trilogy), seems to share a closer kinship to William Golding's 1954 classic "Lord of the Flies" than to most of the modern fantasy YA book-to-screen upstarts. Constructed as a mystery, its various layers gradually unpeeling with each new discovery, the film eschews a lot of early exposition in exchange for a more deliberate build-up. Focusing on characters who do not remember their pasts is a unique hurdle which first-time feature director Wes Ball must jump, and he succeeds as allegiances form and relationships tighten—and, in other cases, unravel. As tautly devised as his picture is, Ball's literally shaky tackling of action signals that, in some respects, there is definite room for improvement.

Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) wakes to find himself being transported above-ground in a makeshift wooden cage. He has arrived in a clearing populated by a group of teenage boys who have built their own shelter and community. He, like the rest of them, has no memory of who he is—though he is assured his name will return to him in a day or two. On all sides is a massive, towering maze that the strongest and fastest of the camp run during the day, trying to find a way out. They return at night, just before the entrances close shut and piercing, deadly creatures known as Grievers are unleashed to kill anyone trespassing upon their lair. Not soon after Ben (Chris Sheffield) is stung by a Griever and an infection begins to overtake him, Thomas and Minho (Ki Hong Lee) find themselves narrowly surviving a night trapped within the maze. Thomas is certain that there is, in fact, an exit to the labyrinth, though what awaits on the other side is anyone's guess. When a girl named Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) arrives at camp with two mysterious vials in her pocket and a cryptic note signaling that she is the last one, all but naysayer Gally (Will Poulter) realize the time has come to act if they ever hope to escape the prison in which they have been entrapped.

Like hero Thomas, "The Maze Runner" drops the viewer instantly into the middle of a bizarre dystopian setting where young men, all of them under eighteen, have been stranded to fend for themselves. There doesn't appear to be a way to get out, but of course there is—and of course there is a covert reason behind how and why they have ended up in their present predicament. Director Wes Ball gives this story an earthy, lonesome visual panache, the self-made, deceptively complacent society shielding some very big threats. As much as Gally would like for things to stay the same, Thomas knows that to accept their current circumstances and not seek answers is no way to live.

The maze itself is an awesome display of special effects, even if the vast majority are creations within a computer. All the same, they convincingly gel with the human actors, helping one to buy into the premise. The Grievers, by comparison, are a little more overtly CG, though their ceaseless, rapid-fire gait and crab-like structure are suitably intimidating. Thomas and his relationships with Minho, leader Alby (Aml Ameen), Alby's right-hand man Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), the younger and more vulnerable Chuck (Blake Cooper), the antagonistic Gally, and finally Teresa are the soul of the film and the reason why it is so involving. Particularly affecting is the sort of big-brother/little-brother bond formed between Thomas and Chuck. Dylan O'Brien (2013's "The Internship"), looking like Logan Lerman's fraternal twin brother, is a confident, rousing, sympathetic choice as Thomas, while newcomer Blake Cooper is a sweet, ingratiating Chuck.

As the action of the second half of "The Maze Runner" ramps up, so does a tendency for jittery camera movements and murky lighting. Unless the purpose is to hide less-than-stellar effects work, there is no conceivable reason why so many modern filmmakers insist on approaching battle and fight scenes in this way. While a few key moments in the third act are marred by the viewer's inability to fully see what is going on, this thankfully lessens as the brutally satisfying finale moves in. Closing on a note of particularly gripping suggestion, "The Maze Runner" leaves the door wide open for what studio 20th Century Fox is surely hoping will follow suit of the books and become a multi-part series. This first installment is certainly promising enough to warrant a continuation.
© 2014 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman