The Maze Runner review: “A shrewdly entertaining futuristic fairy tale – a cut above the rest”

"Dylan O’Brien is a star in the making while director Wes Ball conjures up an enticingly thick air of menace and mystery, and drops a morsel of information every time it looks as though the story might hit a brick wall"

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Much like The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner presses all the right buttons for teenagers raised on a steady diet of reality game shows, who might also wonder what life would be like without high-speed global communications. It’s a shrewdly entertaining futuristic fairy tale with up-and-comer Dylan O’Brien propitiously cast as Thomas, the hero of the title who finds himself cut off from civilisation at the centre of a giant stonewalled maze with no memory of who he is, or what the world beyond even looks like.

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The aim of this game is beautifully simple and summed up by Thomas in a classic Hollywood one-liner: “Let’s get outta here.”

Clearly, the author of the original best-selling novel James Dashner owes a debt to Greek mythology, too, with Thomas serving as a junior Theseus who boldly enters the labyrinth and is immediately confronted by a Griever, one of its guardian creatures. First-time director Wes Ball graduated from the art department with credits on backstage docs for Star Trek and Aliens in the Attic, so he knows a thing or two about designing a scary beastie and the Grievers combine everything you hate about spiders and scorpions – supersized. Intriguingly, apart from the icky dripping fangs and a poisonous sting in the tail, their bodies are partly mechanised, indicating a human-led conspiracy.

From the get-go, Ball conjures up an enticingly thick air of menace and mystery, without too much teasing. He sets the perfect pace by dropping a morsel of information (about the origins and purpose of the maze) every time it looks as though the story might hit a brick wall and that draws Thomas – and the rest of us – deeper into it. In addition Thomas is always racing against time, having to return to the Glade (the bucolic heart of the maze) every day before nightfall, when the gate closes and the Grievers come out to play like so many drooling, octopod Pac-Men.

Fortunately, the kid can move fast, but the sign of a star is that he’s good at being still and there’s one in the making here. O’Brien quietly expresses confusion and guilt, being set apart from the other ‘Gladers’ who sense a changing in the winds since he was spewed up by the earth (as they all were).

Tensions rise, testing group dynamics in a way that recalls William Golding’s classic Lord of the Flies. Thomas breaks the rules by entering the maze without being elected, putting him at loggerheads with Gally (played by home-grown talent Will Poulter) who is seemingly on the edge of a nervous breakdown after three years in captivity. It’s another stand-out turn for the star of Son of Rambow and We’re the Millers who, in later scenes, is chilling in his need for control. Meanwhile, another young Brit, Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Game of Thrones) acts as the voice of reason.

Dashner is a magpie storyteller, very obviously and skilfully picking the juiciest bits from renowned works of fiction that go back a few thousand years. At the same time the film feels current, part of a cycle that includes The Hunger Games, JJ Abrams’s Lost and before that, a bunch of island survival shows looking to block out the noise of the Information Age and reignite a sense of campfire camaraderie that feels even more immediate than instant messaging.

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In the end, the answers to Thomas’s questions are spilled in a graceless torrent and considering the sequel is already in the works, it might have paid to let him do a little more detective work in getting to “Phase Two”. It’s not seamless but The Maze Runner is still a cut above the recent slew of teenage fantasy thrillers, a truly fast and furious coming-of-age yarn.