The Maze Runner review

A YA adap that finds its feet

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Before you have a chance to grumble about yet another dystopian Young Adult franchise-starter adapted from a trilogy of hit books, The Maze Runner launches into a breathless and baffling opening. Dylan O’Brien’s protagonist wakes up in industrial elevator, heading upwards. He’s none the wiser about his current situation, or his impending destination, than the audience are. Maintaining this sense of urgency and mystery for most of its running time, the appropriately titled thriller moves at a giddy sprint, with a lean set-up and gritty edge that should see it find an audience outside of its core demographic.

It’s primarily aimed at late teens, particularly those who devoured James Dashner’s series of novels (three books, starting with The Maze Runner , plus a prequel). In front of, and behind, the camera, everything about The Maze Runner screams ‘young’ – from the fresh-faced, not yet properly famous cast, to first-time director Wes Ball. To its credit, the film doesn’t feel like it was delivered via focus group.

There’s no cynicism or pandering, with straight-up thrills seemingly the main aim. While The Hunger Games would’ve no doubt been invoked when this was being pitched, it avoids feeling like a lazy imitation. It adheres to sci-fi, action and thriller conventions more closely than the standard YA tropes.

Debut feature director Wes Ball won the job solely off the back of his attention-grabbing CGI short Ruin , in which a nameless protagonist is chased across a sprawling sci-fi landscape by a helijet, coming across like a next-gen videogame version of Spielberg’s Duel . In terms of its taut delivery, The Maze Runner certainly shares DNA with that short, although it’s impressive how well Ball fleshes out the human characters, given that the setup inevitably strips the actors of backstory.

Our window into the world, it’s O’Brien’s character that we follow into the maze. At the end of the opening sequence, when he emerges into the daylight, he comes to realise he’s the latest of many unwilling residents of ‘the Glade’, a grassy clearing surrounded on all sides by a giant complex of mazes, its mechanical walls blocking out the horizon and providing the Gladers’ 360° horizon.

Later remembering that his name is Thomas (it’s the only past detail the residents/prisoners eventually recall), he’s initiated into the Lord Of The Flies -esque community, aggressively accosted by Gally (Will Poulter) and fed some exposition by Alby (Aml Ameen): the boys – all of them are young and male – have carved out a nice little community (treehouses, smallholdings, homemade hooch for the occasional fire party), but there’s little sign of any chance of escape.

The most athletic (the ‘maze runners’) sprint into the labyrinthine concrete jungle, but their time inside is limited by the presence of the Grievers, biomechanical predators that provide the film’s key action/horror beats. Thomas, indignant, exasperated and a pretty pacy athlete, is keen to investigate the maze, much to the disgruntlement of Gally: he’s happy just surviving. The community’s harmony is further disrupted by the arrival of Teresa ( Skins ’ Kaya Scodelario), the last arrival the Glade will be getting, and the first girl.

Anyone suffering YA weariness will be pleased to know that romance isn’t on the cards (for now, at least). The young cast impress across the board, with the sense that several could be on for breakout success. O’Brien fulminates charismatically, bursting with desperation. Poulter – who took home BAFTA’s Rising Star award earlier this year – exudes menace and vulnerability, and manages to prevent his character (ostensibly the human antagonist) from becoming one-note. Scodelario has limited screentime, but when she does show up she brims with unshowy steeliness.

If anything, the lack of A-listers adds to the atmosphere; the cast’s under-the-radar status stripping them of baggage. For all its leanness, in story terms, and, you sense, behind the camera, TMR avoids ever feeling cheap. Action scenes are effectively handled, with sparing glimpses of the Grievers adding to the tension.

If it falls back anywhere, it’s that the constant forward propulsion and gradually unravelling central mystery make for an experience to be devoured rather than savoured, one that might not reward repeat viewings. That said, it does build to a coda that rounds off the story while leaving you very much fired up for a sequel. Here’s hoping The Scorch Trials is just as tense and agile: given the audience this is likely to find, we wouldn’t bet against the final instalment being split in two.

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Matt Maytum
Deputy Editor, Total Film

I'm the Deputy Editor at Total Film magazine, looking after the long-form features there, and generally obsessing over all things Nolan, Kubrick and Pixar. Over the past decade I've worked in various roles for TF online and in print, including at GamesRadar+, and you can often hear me nattering on the Inside Total Film podcast. Bucket-list-ticking career highlights have included reporting from the set of Tenet and Avengers: Infinity War, as well as covering Comic-Con, TIFF and the Sundance Film Festival.