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October 9, 2014

Film + Entertainment | by Francesco Cerniglia


Let’s face it: Hollywood is desperate to find the next Hunger Games. However, not every literary teen franchise is destined to become a box office hit and the reason isn’t necessarily the quality or lack thereof in the source material. Just a few weeks ago I reviewed The Giver, adapted from an iconic novel within the genre of teen dystopia and definitely an essential precursor to the wave of contemporary ones, yet its cinematic adaptation didn’t really hit home.

James Dashner’s The Maze Runner is the first novel in the New York Times bestselling trilogy about a colony of boys trapped in a glade at the center of a maze that’s impossible to escape. None of them can remember their lives up until arriving there and how or why they got to the glade. Nothing is particularly original about this story but the mystery is engaging, the pages fly by and the characters are sufficiently defined.

What makes this film adaptation by first timer Wes Ball tick is summed up by three elements: being faithful to the tone and spirit of the source material but restructuring and trimming when cinematically needed, keeping the production grounded with practical sets and minimum use of CGI and last but not least the inspired casting choices of young up and comers, with three of the lead ones being British.

The story kicks off straight up into the heart of mystery with Thomas (Dylan O’ Brien), a teenage boy who gets catapulted into the glade inside a box shot up to the surface from an underground lift. Disoriented and clueless about what just happened, Thomas is greeted by the “Gladers”, a group of boys who have met his same destiny, one at a time, one each month. No one has the slightest recollection of who they are or why they’re there. The only thing they can remember after a day or so is their name and so does Thomas.

The gladers’ leader, Alby (Aml Ameen), and his second in command, Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) welcome Thomas to the “family” and give him the grand tour, showing him how they’ve organized themselves as a self-run society where everyone has a specific task, from growing food, to cooking, to medical support and of course the so called “runners”, the elite group of athletic kids who run through the maze every day in order to find a way out.

Why run do you wonder? Well, the maze isn’t just an innocuous puzzle to solve. It’s a death trap inhabited by what the kids have named “grievers”: part animal, part machine, they’re vile creatures whose sole purpose is hunting the gladers down.

They usually come out at night when the maze’s doors get automatically shut. But lately some have popped out during the day with lethal consequences for those unlucky enough to bump into them. Hence the whole point of running is to cover enough ground as possible in the hope of finding a way out before the following day when the maze’s layout changes like it does every night.


It’s hard to be a “greenie” aka the newbie of the glade but Thomas proves to be a trooper and does his best to adapt to the circumstances. He finds a true friend in Chuck (Blake Cooper), the cute chubby kid and comic relief who becomes like a little brother to him, but he also bumps into the antagonistic, bully-esque ways of Gally (Will Poulter).

Ever since his arrival Thomas has felt an odd urge within himself to become a runner though he’s initially assigned to the crops. But after one of the runners gets stung by a griever and infected with what the kids call “the changing” which compels him to attack Thomas, the boy realizes how running is a serious matter and he’s shocked to witness the “changed” kid being exiled to the maze at night, as he can no longer live with them, despite that being practically a death sentence.

When a reckless act of heroism leads Thomas to save Alby and his best runner Minho (Ki Hong Lee), the boy earns the gladers’ respect and is allowed to become a runner. Yet Gally remains suspicious of Thomas’ quick integration in the glade and truth is he might be right. Thomas in fact starts having weird dreams where he seems to be involved with the people behind it all. And the mystery gets thicker when the most unpredictable variable is thrown at the gladers.

A week after Thomas’ arrival, the lift from the underground delivers another glader (something that’s never happened again this soon) but this time it’s a girl and there’s a note on her saying she’s the last one. Despite being unconscious, Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), the girl in question, keeps mouthing Thomas’ name, confirming that something’s dodgy in this whole matter and inevitably creating new tensions within the group as it immediately becomes clear how her arrival has ignited a deep change in the way the glade works.

Any further plot hint could spoil the fun so I’ll just say that by the time the film reaches its climax, the adrenaline pumps and the emotional impact is quite effective. The conclusion inevitably lays the ground for the second chapter in the trilogy that’s just officially been announced for next year after the film opened to great numbers in the US.

Coming across as an intriguing mesh up of Lord Of The Flies and The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner briskly unfolds at an engaging and suspenseful pace, kept alive by high stakes and authentic violence which truly make us feel like nobody is safe. And there’s room for some philosophical rumination in there as well since the gladers split up between those willing to risk their lives following Thomas in the maze in order to have a chance to escape and those who want to remain with Gally in the glade under the illusion they can call that “life”.

Packed with exciting action throughout that works well thanks to the use of mostly practical rather than overly CGI’d special effects, the film looks very cinematic. It’s impressive to learn that Wes Ball only directed the animated short film Ruin before this feature since he surely shows great promise as a mainstream filmmaker with a vision rather than just one for hire.


Finally, let’s not forget the solid cast of young rising stars who take it all to the next level. Dylan O’ Brien is the only reason why I’ve made MTV’s Teen Wolf one of my guilty pleasures. When I first saw him on the show I knew he was meant to explode and not as just another piece of eye candy. He has a natural charm and energy that make him stand out from the crowd.

And then there’s the trio of Britons who are bound to conquer Hollywood. Thomas Brodie-Sangster wooed us all as the cute child in Love Actually, had a cult role in Game Of Thrones and even played young Paul McCartney in Nowhere Boy. He oozes with magnetism and intensity. Will Poulter also got on the spotlight as a child in cult movie Son Of Rainbow, revealed to us his hilarious side in We’re The Millers and now shows off his dramatic skills sharpened in several British indies. Finally Kaya Scodelario is the enigmatic beauty from TV’s Skins but has collected several roles in films like Moon, and Wuthering Heights.

I bet these kids’ careers will get a deserved bump after the franchise delivers at the box office as it’s already doing. I, for once, am curious to see where the story is headed and I’ve just got my hands on the other two novels in the trilogy. Consider me hooked…

The Maze Runner
is out in UK cinemas on October 10th

Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor