Thursday, September 25, 2014

It Came From The Cineplex: The Maze Runner

The Maze Runner was written by Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers and T.S. Nowlin, and was directed by Wes Ball. It's based on the novel of the same name by James Dashner. Ball is primarily a visual effects artist, and this is his first shot at directing a big-budget movie. He does a decent enough job with the script he's given.

Sigh... another day, another Young Adult Dystopian Sci-Fi story. The Maze Runner takes its place along other such stories such as The Hunger Games, Divergence, Matched, Delirium, Life As We Knew It and many others. Bookstores and Hollywood alike love these things. And why not? They're big business right now. Teen readers and moviegoers can't seem to get enough of them. These stories are like a license to print money.

The formula's pretty simple. First you invent a futuristic fascist society, which, let's face it, is pretty much how most teens see the world. Second, drop in a young protagonist who just doesn't fit in, so the target audience will identify with them. Add a love triangle and throw in a rebellion against the oppressors. Drag the story out into a trilogy (or in most cases these days, a quadrology), then sit back and watch the money roll in.

The Maze Runner is a prime example of this formula. It's an interesting sci-fi story with an unusual setup and an intriguing mystery to solve. Unfortunately everything unravels at the end, as the origin of the Maze is a big letdown that makes little or no sense. Better they should have left the mystery unsolved.

The film also spends far too much time setting up the inevitable sequels at the expense the current story. Gotta make sure there are dangling plot threads so the audience comes back next year, right?

In addition to being similar to The Hunger Games and its ilk, it reminds me a bit of Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld series. In Riverworld, every person who ever lived and died on Earth is resurrected along the banks of a million mile long river, which is bordered by sheer thousand foot high cliffs on each side. After a while a group of adventurous souls decide to sail up the river to try and discover where they are, why they're there and who's responsible for it all. Sounds pretty similar, eh?

The movie was originally scheduled to premiere in February 2014, but was pushed back to September 2014. It's generally regarded as a bad sign when a movie gets delayed, but it turned out OK here.


The Plot:
A teenaged boy wakes up inside a rusty elevator, with no idea where or even who he is. At the top of the elevator shaft, he finds himself in a large meadow called the Glade, which is surrounded on all four sides by the walls of an enormous Maze. He's welcomed by a group of other teen boys who arrived the same way he did. After a day or so he remembers his name is Thomas, but that's all he can remember.

As Thomas becomes part of the makeshift society set up by the Gladers, he learns that they're are trapped in the center of the Maze, which is guarded by terrifying, unseen creatures called Grievers who come out at night. Unlike the rest of the boys, he's intensely curious as to the nature of their situation and why they're there. He eventually becomes a Runner, one of an elite group who explores the Maze during the day.

After many excursions into the Maze, Thomas and another runner called Minho discover a door that leads out. They take a group through the doorway, and discover the disappointing secret of the Maze.

• This film is a prime example of why screenwriters should think twice about resolving their mysteries. Think about how many intriguing setups were ruined by mediocre payoffs. Under The Dome, The Village, Identity, Cube, and the grandaddy of them all, LOST. No matter how good you think your explanation may be, it's going to be a letdown because the audience can always imagine something better.

• When Thomas first arrives, he can't remember anything, not even his name. Alby, the leader of the Gladers, tells him his name will come to him in a couple of days.

Some of the other Gladers' names: Gally, Newt, Frypan and Zart. Hmm. Those are not names. Did their memories get scrambled? Or is this one of those deals where everyone in the future has some weirdo name like Katniss and Peeta?

• Alby tells Thomas that he was the first Glader and he's been there about three years. Once a month the elevator comes to the surface and brings supplies and a fresh Glader. Based on that formula and doing the math, there should have been fewer than 36 Gladers in the Maze (since a few died over the years). It certainly looked like there were more than 36 in the crowd scenes.

In the book it's explained that the elevator brought up more than one Glader at a time. But this ain't the book, and Alby specifically states it's one a month.

• Thomas hears a terrifying roar, and Alby tells him there are monsters patrolling the Maze. He matter-of-factly says they're called "Grievers," the same way you'd point up and say "That's called the sky." Sorry, Alby, they're not called that, that's the cockamamie "future slang" name you gave to them.

Chuck tells Thomas that no one knows what the Grievers even look like. They're so deadly that nobody has ever seen one and lived to tell about it. Then Thomas is attacked by Ben, who was stung by a Griever and is going through the "Changing," some sort of deadly disease. So in other words Ben saw a Griever and lived to tell about it, right? Then why doesn't anyone know what they look like?

One last thing about the Grievers. They had a pretty cool design; half fleshy monster, half robotic spider. Or at least I think they looked cool. We never really get a good look at them, as they're shown in shadows most of the time, and director Ball seems to be in love with the "shaky cam" fight scene technique.

• Why does the Maze look so old? When Thomas and Minho run inside it, the walls are crumbling and moss covered and look like they've been there for centuries. Isn't the Maze only three years old? Did the builders deliberately make it look old to hide its true age from the Gladers?

• Thomas suggests to Newt that they try to climb the Maze walls, to see if there's a way out. Newt causally dismisses his plan. Thomas then tries to offer more ideas, but Newt shuts him down each time before he can even finish speaking. Newt says that whatever ideas he has, they've already tried them.

How the hell does he know that? What if Thomas was about to suggest skinning a few of the weaker Gladers and making a hot air balloon from their hides? I bet they hadn't thought of that one! 

It just seemed irresponsible to not even listen to someone's plan before shooting it down.

• So once a month the elevator comes to the surface, bringing a new captive along with barrels full of supplies for the Gladers. Apparently among the supplies they bring are plenty of hair care items. Virtually every character sports freshly cut locks, loaded with tons of "product."

We're told that everyone in the Glade has a specific job in order to help them all survive. I'm guessing one of the boys must have been designated the official hair stylist.

• Speaking of styling, Minho the Runner had this impressively huge shelf of hair that juts out seven or eight inches past his forehead, like the bill of a baseball hat. If they ever make a live action Jonny Quest movie, this is what his hair would look like.

• Gally is the movie's Designated Asshole. You know, the character who makes things difficult for the hero for no other reason than because the script says so. Every story has to have one. Think Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films, or Joffrey in Game Of Thrones.

• The Gladers have three rules. Number Two is "Never Hurt Another Glader." Gally violates this one several times during the film, but no one ever calls him on it.

• Every night at dark, the massive doors to the Maze close and grinding noises come from within. Minho tells Thomas this is the sound of the Maze changing. It does this every night so the Runners can't memorize its pattern.

Later he takes Thomas into a hut and shows him an elaborate model he made of the maze. He admits that he and the other Runners have mapped out the entire thing, and there's no exit. They're keeping this a secret though, so the other Gladers don't lose hope. 

Um... didn't Minho say the Maze changes every night? How do you make a model– or a map– of something that's constantly changing? Whoops!

• A month after Thomas arrives, the elevator comes to the surface again. This time it brings a girl! A girl who seems to know Thomas, and who's carrying a note saying she's "the last one ever" to be added to the Glade.

A couple things here. First off I'm convinced that the filmmakers deliberately chose an actress (Kaya Schdelario) who looks more like Kristen Stewart than Kristen Stewart does, in the hopes that the cachet of her Twilight films would rub off on their production.

Secondly, the movie completely avoids the fact that it's just introduced a girl into a colony of horny teenaged boys, some of whom haven't seen a female in three years. I realize they've got plot points to hit and don't have time to examine how this will affect the fragile Glader society, but would it have killed them to have Newt decree a "Hands Off" policy?

Maybe the Maze builders added some kind of anti-boner drug to the Glader's monthly supplies.

• Thomas and Minho eventually find a way out of the Maze. They convince most of the other Gladers to follow them, so they can all escape. WARNING! I'm gonna be discussing the reasons behind the Maze here, so this is your last chance to turn back!

The Gladers exit the Maze and discover a lab full of dead scientists. Before they can wonder what's going on, a monitor flickers to life, and a recording of Ava Paige, the head scientist, proceeds to info dump the origin of the Maze to them.

So what's the big mystery? What's the reason behind the Maze? Did aliens build it to study humanity? Did the gods create it to amuse themselves? Is it a manifestation of Hell itself?

Nope, it's none of those. Instead it seems the Earth has been decimated by a gigantic solar flare. If that wasn't enough, shortly afterward an epidemic (also confusingly called the Flare) rose up and killed off even more of the population. A group of scientists formed the World In Catastrophe Killzone experiment Department, known as WCKD (pronounced "wicked"), which may possibly be the most tortured and contrived acronym I've ever heard. WCKD built the Maze to research why certain youths are immune to the Flare, in hopes that a cure could be found.

That's it? Are you flipping kidding me? THAT'S why they built the Maze? These scientists are survivors of a global cataclysm. Manpower and resources are no doubt stretched very thin. In the middle of all this chaos and want, they somehow managed to construct an enormous, miles-wide Maze for the sole purpose of observing the subjects within. And in some mysterious way that's left unexplained, this is supposed to lead to a cure for a disease.

I honestly don't get it. I've approached this explanation from every possible direction, and I just do not understand it. Wouldn't all those resources have been better spent studying the Gladers' blood or brain tissue, to see why they're immune and to possibly synthesize a cure? Isn't that how normal scientists operate? No one in their right mind builds a goddamned maze to find a cure for the flu.

You can't even use the excuse that it's a "survival of the fittest" kind of trial, because strength had nothing to do with surviving or navigating the Maze. 

I really liked the film and was totally onboard with it right up until the end, and then it just lost me. I honestly wish they'd have just shown the Gladers walk through the exit of the Maze and faded to black, leaving us to imagine what they find on the other side. That would have been a hundred times better than the limp, wheezing ending we got.

• Ava Paige, the lead scientist who's been screwing with the Gladers for the past three years, is played by Patricia Clarkson, who was none other than Tammy 1, Ron Swanson's first wife on Parks & Recreation! Perfect casting!

• After the Gladers learn the truth about the Maze, they prepare to head for the exit and the world beyond. Before they can do so, Gally shows up with a gun, determined to stop them. 

How in the name of sanity did he catch up with the group? They left him way back in the Glade, and despite the fact he'd never been in the Maze before, he somehow managed to follow their course and find them in minutes. Did they leave a trail of breadcrumbs for him?

• After Gally's dispatched, a group of soldiers bursts into the lab, grab the Gladers and hurry them out. Are they the good guys? Terrorists? Mercenaries? Well, you'll have to come back next year to find out. This is Part One of a planned trilogy, dontcha know, so we can't answer every little question you have just yet.

• The Gladers are then whisked into a helicopter and as it takes off, we see that the Maze was sitting in the middle of a vast, lifeless desert (no doubt the result of the solar flare), under a leaden gray sky. 

So when they were inside the Maze, why was the sky always blue? And how the hell did it rain in the Glade? Apparently such questions are none of our business, as it's never addressed, and probably won't be in the subsequent Maze-less sequels.

Also, the Glade in the center of the Maze was lush and green, filled with trees and grass. If the scientists had the technology to build a budding oasis in the middle of a desert, why couldn't they have used it everywhere? Why not spend their resources replanting the scorched Earth instead of wasting it building a Maze for sketchy (at best) reasons? 

I'm starting to think the scientists resented the Gladers' immunity to the Flare and built the Maze just to torture them for their own amusement.

The Maze Runner has an intriguing premise and starts out strong, feeling much like a big budget Twilight Zone episode. Unfortunately it crashes and burns in the third act, as the less than compelling reasons for the Maze are revealed. Better they should have left it a mystery. I give it a B.

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