Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Lost Boys: "Maze Runner" jogs tedious mysteries into ground


The Maze Runner (2014)
114 min., rated PG-13.

With there being an apparently high demand in the young-adult market, any film that cuts in line of any upcoming "Divergent"/"The Hunger Games" sequel or three-quel is going to be accused of being so like-minded and vaguely derivative. There's no way around it, sadly, but a group of boys are given a shot to jump on the bandwagon that is the dystopian, typically female-fronted adventure with "The Maze Runner." An adaptation of the 2009 first book in author James Dashner's tetralogy, the film is like a post-apocalyptic compilation of "Lord of the Flies," "The Goonies," TV's "Lost," and "The Cabin in the Woods" in a blender. While a concoction of familiar elements can still work if pulled off with an identity of its own or a fresh thematic point to make, "The Maze Runner" doesn't have much of either. It has an intriguing setup with impressive craftsmanship and production values that leads to a non-event of a conclusion, which presumptuously sets up for more to come.

Before a bump to the head allows him to remember his name, Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) wakes up in a cage elevator shooting up to day's light above. He's surrounded by a population of teenage boys who, like himself, have all been wiped of their memories and call him "Greenie" upon his arrival. Thomas is now part of a new society in an open meadow, called "The Glade," covered with trees and fenced in by the concrete walls of an ever-changing maze. The very first boy, Alby (Aml Ameen), and Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) welcome Thomas, warning him to never, ever go beyond the walls because no one has ever survived the night inside the maze when the routes change at nightfall. Main enforcer Gally (Will Poulter) believes everyone should abide by the rules, even though it's taken one of the camp's designated maze runners, Minho (Ki Hong Lee), three years to look for a way out. Then when that same elevator Thomas and every boy arrived in returns, it has inside the first girl, Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), who already knows Thomas' name and experiences the same kind of seizure-like nightmares as him. When someone becomes stung by the one of the maze's obstaclesgiant, robotic arachnids/scorpions called "Grievers"—who will be left in the maze to die, Thomas takes a chance and runs in before the maze walls close for the night. Will he have what it takes to be a runner, or is he already dead?

Perking up from the start, "The Maze Runner" drops us in head-first with an intense jolt of urgency, as we find then-nameless Thomas waking up to his lightning-fast ride in "the box" up to The Glade. Making his feature debut, visual effects artist Wes Ball directs without losing the much-needed toughness of the story. On and off, the film does ratchet up spikes of excitementa breathless, visceral chase in the maze between Thomas and one of the Grievers comes to mind, as well as every time Thomas runs through a tight space, "Indiana Jones"-style, just before the moving walls could crush him—and screenwriters Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers and T.S. Nowlin's script gradually rises in narrative threat and strife among the Gladers. The stakes never seem high enough, though, since everything is a mystery. When the maze walls shift at night to throw off the runners, the sense of panic should be higher and more palpable. Sure, even if the runners didn't enter the maze, the Grievers are still released through the Glade, but the Glade seems like a pretty serene version of "Survivor" with a lot of downtime to be resourceful and live off the land. There certainly are higher-power insinuations, but the more we gather, the less engaging and more dull the film gets. To little avail, it seems like the film is always on the verge of becoming more thrilling, more dangerous, and more interesting.

Nabbing his first feature lead role, Dylan O'Brien (TV's "Teen Wolf") is solid, bringing a groundedness to the ambiguous part of Thomas, who's accused of having a death wish but has more proactivity than anyone. It is mostly a physical and emotionally reactive performance, considering Thomas has no memory, but O'Brien shows promise in carrying a franchise if it comes to that. The rest of the cast, young and cost-effective in that they're mostly a fresh-faced lot, does a fine job. Aml Ameen and the elfish Thomas Brodie-Sangster (most memorable eleven years ago in "Love Actually") make the most impression, while Blake Cooper's wisecracking Chuck reminds somewhat of Chunk from "The Goonies." Given the hullabaloo of being the token girl in the Glades, Kaya Scodelario is underused as Teresa. Finally, Will Poulter (a comedic standout from 2013's "We're the Millers") is only a type, getting to scowl a lot and express everything with bravado as the infuriating Gally.

When the characters aren't given the chance to deepen, it doesn't really make for riveting high drama. These characters are purposefully undeveloped and depthless, but they also tend to be voice boxes for an abundance of exposition. No matter how sincerely they are delivered, so many trite lines are utteredi.e. "I think it's time we find out what we're really up against," "We get out now or we die trying," and "What if we were sent here for a reason?"that they might as well give credit to other movies. Certainly, director Wes Ball keeps things running along, but as soon as these characters start realizing who they are, why they are there, and who's "behind the curtain," the intrigue peters out and the viewer's interest level starts to wane. Even some of the darkly lit action in the third act could have used a good, old-fashioned steadicam, but the final edit prefers shaky-cammed mania for would-be intensity. What it all adds up to is only going to please its pre-sold target audience. Frankly, for everyone else who isn't a YA, it's more of a tedious, anticlimactic letdown. When one character key to the goings-on (played by Patricia Clarkson as the requisite cold-as-ice adult) announces that "Phase 2" will soon begin, one cannot help but shrug and think, "Was that all for Phase 1?" Maybe more will actually come to pass with "The Scorch Trials."

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