It’s a dystopic, post-apocalyptic future and teens are being picked on again. They’re not the keeper of the community’s memories, they aren’t supposed to kill each other, they’re just stuck in this massive concrete and steel edifice with only their own wits and guile to make it through each day. In fact, some of the teen boys — and it’s all boys, for no obvious reason — have been in The Glade for years, trying to eke out sustenance while avoiding The Maze. Yes, in case you haven’t figured it out, they’re all stuck in the middle of this massive maze.
Everything revolves around the newest “greenie”, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), who has appeared in the Glade exactly how everyone else has: via a freight elevator that comes up to the surface from a subterranean complex. He’s different than the other boys (of course!) in that he’s driven to figure out what’s going on, what the Maze is all about and why they’re stuck there. The status quo, a fragile society built by old-timer Gally (Will Poulter), Thomas finds completely unacceptable, with its caste system and fear of exploration.
There are a group of boys called Maze Runners who dash into the massive Maze every morning, running up and down the different lanes to map it all out and find a way out. But they have to be swift: the maze closes and leaves the boys in the glade isolated every night at sunset. Anyone left inside the maze at night is killed by the Grievers. Maze, meet Minotaur.
When Alby (Ami Ameen), one of the Maze Runners, is injured during a run, Thomas violates community taboos and dashes into the maze to help rescue him, ending up trapped in there with Alby and Minho (Ki Hong Lee). He outwits the Griever that attacks them and comes out a hero to everyone but Gally, who recognizes the threat to his leadership of the band of boys. Then Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) shows up in The Box (the freight elevator. Another of the young adult dystopic novel tropes is to give primitive names to things as a way to evoke a post-apocalyptic societal collapse) and immediately recognizes Thomas, then collapses unconscious. Everyone else who arrives in The Glade has had their memory wiped and barely recalls their own names. How can she recognize him? And what’s a girl doing in their little all-male enclave anyway?
Those are enough plot ingredients that I’ll bet everyone reading this review can now figure out how things transpire. The Maze doesn’t have an exit, except it does. The Grievers aren’t beasts after all. Or are they? Teresa and Thomas have a connection that they eventually figure out, Gally leads a group intent on punishing Thomas for violating the societal rules and sparks a rebellion. Then some of them get out of the Maze just to find that things weren’t what they seemed.
Let’s be candid here: The Maze Runner is daft. There are so many plot holes in the film that it’s laughable, from basic things like how the boys maintain personal hygiene to all the questions raised by the far deeper Lord of the Flies about how adolescent boys create a power structure and then enforce it. This is way tamer, way less intense.
And then there are the standard coming of age tropes that pervade this film too. In a culture made exclusively of boys who are in the throes of adolescence and have only the slightest hope of survival, wouldn’t some seek the companionship of other boys? And wouldn’t the other boys swarm all over Teresa when she showed up, like flies on meat? (yes, that’s a deliberate analogy).
There’s also a complete disconnect with the Maze itself, fascinating though the concept may be: We learn that every night the maze shifts and changes, which to me brought up visions of the brilliant Dark City, but later we learn that ((SPOILER!)) the Maze Runners have long since completely mapped the maze. How can they completely map a maze that keeps changing? Yeah, oops. I also couldn’t help wonder how the maze is powered too. With 100-foot tall walls at least 10 feet thick, that’s a lot of weight to shift around on rails without any exposed equipment.
The final reveal is not only predictable, it might as well just have said “Stay tuned kids! We’ll be back with more!” and it’s entirely possible they used leftover footage from any of a dozen similar apocalyptic films or a never-shown Syfy b-movie for the closing shot. Or maybe a cut sequence from Destiny or another of the high-production-value video games now on the market.
To be fair, my teen children really enjoyed the book so I can only hope that it was better written and a bit more deep than this bit of young adult sci-fi fluff. Are the visual effects cool? Yeah, but so what? At this point every film has great visual effects. I expect more of a film, and when the film tackles the evergreen topic of the adolescent journey to adulthood, the mythic Hero’s Journey, I want to see something considerably more thoughtful and profound. Heck, this makes The Hunger Games look deep. And that’s saying something.