In Greek mythology the labyrinth was a byzantine structure utilized to house the deadly minotaur, built at the behest of a powerful king and deadly in its complexity and size. In perhaps the most memorable modern approximation, “The Shining,” a hedge maze is employed for the film’s snowy climax, in order to trap another deadly monster – an alcoholic author played by Jack Nicholson. This week’s leaden “The Maze Runner,” adapted from a best-selling young adult novel by James Dashner, also features a monster-filled maze but narrative ambition and any kind of metaphoric underpinnings have been stripped away. Instead, the maze is, like the rest of the movie, giant, dreary, and inert.
Like most halfway decent YA adaptations, “The Maze Runner” starts off intriguingly enough: Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) wakes up in a mysterious community known as The Glade. His memory has been wiped (the only thing he remembers is his name) and he is both terrified and drawn to a giant maze that encircles the camp of similarly lost boys. The camp’s leader Alby (Ami Ameen) explains that most of the young men have been there for years, and notes that the agrarian society has already been broken down into factions who exist, happily, side-by-side. The most skilled and foolhardy members of their little tribe are the only ones allowed to traverse the maze, since it’s guarded by scary monsters and is constantly shifting (controlled by damnably unseen forces). Of course, that doesn’t keep Thomas from wanting to explore it, at the cost of potentially all of their lives. On the other side of the maze, Thomas realizes, is freedom, for all of them.
When Thomas is introduced to this world, a number of cultural touchstones are invoked, mostly works that involve a maze either real or imagined, like the cult British television series “The Prisoner” or metaphysical mystery box “Lost.” The world of “The Maze Runner” is so small, especially compared to the vast universes conjured up by things like “The Hunger Games” or “Harry Potter” franchises, so those outside elements act as a way to broaden and expand what is a relatively contained environment. The mystery is titillating, but only for a spell. And after the movie’s first act, things slow down considerably.
Mazes are scary, as anyone who has ever gone into a peaceful corn maze and forgotten, if only for a moment, the way out and been gripped by an inescapable terror can attest, and the idea that this particular maze, with its shifting geography and scary monsters that howl out in the night, certainly conjures up a sizable amount of dread. But mazes are also such a blank canvas that, without projecting something into the maze (the fear of being overruled, psychosexual unrest), then all it becomes is a scary, vine-covered location. “The Maze Runner” has soggy plotting and muddy cinematography, but the fact that the filmmakers (led by first timer Wes Ball) weren’t able to do more with the maze, on a metaphoric level, is the most depressing of all.
Even when a young female character is introduced into the mix (Kaya Scodelario, whose American accent wavers intermittently), upending the otherwise male-only movie, it doesn’t do much to shake up the drab narrative path that runs, unlike the maze, in a straight line. It seems that, especially with the girl showing up, the labyrinth would be a perfect stand-in for the claustrophobic sensations associated with adolescence (especially male adolescence). Feelings of being trapped and held in place, by parents, by teachers, by your own rampaging hormones seem like something of a no-brainer when applied to a property that features a literal maze. But in “The Maze Runner,” where characters are repeatedly telling each other that nothing is ever what it seems, it is completely free of any metaphoric dimension.
As the movie drags on, more and more about the maze is revealed, including that one of its architects is, for some reason, played by Patricia Clarkson (doing her best Jodie Foster-in-“Elysium” impression), and that the monsters everyone is so afraid of are actually lumbering steampunk spiders that are brought to life via unconvincing computer-generated imagery. These bits of plot detail don’t amount to much, although we still found ourselves wanting the characters to learn more, if only because their getting out of the maze would mean that the movie was actually over. Except, in a cruel twist of fate, the movie doesn’t actually end, because, like so many similar young adult adaptations, it is the first part of a trilogy, and the filmmakers, in their infinite wisdom (and just as infinite arrogance), don’t bother to end the movie at all. Instead, we’re treated to a tacked-on cliffhanger that would have been suspenseful and gripping if anything that came before it was of any consequence at all. But since it’s not, the “ending” means even less. It’s superfluous “world building” for a universe nobody would ever want to return to, unless they’re a big fan of olive-colored clothing and repressed sexuality.
Fans of the novel might get some minor thrills from the big screen adaptation, but it’s hard to understand what made the material so popular in the first place. “The Maze Runner,” as a film, is free of texture, nuance, or dimensionality. And those wishing for the kind of visceral excitement and subtle socio-political commentary of “The Hunger Games” will be found desperately wanting. It might become a franchise, but just because of canny marketing and fan loyalty; like the giant walls of the titular labyrinth, in “The Maze Runner,” there’s nothing to grip onto. [D]