It’s true that The Maze Runner owes a debt to The Hunger Games. While it lacks the political context and Battle-Royale-survival plot, it does have a sense of fun and playful adventure that bogged down the Katniss-led series. As the first of a franchise (the sequel has been greenlit) with a trilogy of books, a prequel novel and a further novel in the works, The Maze Runner has a lot to live up to.
Using the same trope as many horror films, The Maze Runner begins with a shock. A teenager (Dylan O’Brien) is trapped in a lift. It is rising higher and higher in the dark. Loose chains rattle and mechanical noises litter the air. He looks around and coughs until he reaches the top. Opening onto a vast field, he has entered ‘The Glade’. A community led by Alby (Aml Ameen) and his second-in-command Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), this is a group of young men trapped between four towering walls. They are in the centre of ‘The Maze’. Runners race through the labyrinth each day to map out the area but it constantly changes. Our nameless protagonist befriends a tubby-teen (Blake Cooper) and makes an enemy in “angry-face” Gally (Will Poulter), but still believes there is hope for the group to escape the dangers of the maze.
Limited primarily to a large field, grey corridors and small ramshackle tents mean that locations can be tiring and repetitive. They run down vine-covered hallways, turn a corner to reveal… another hallway. Surely a little more creativity in the context of a man-made maze wouldn’t have been a bad move? The Hunger Games hint at a world outside, while The Maze Runner locks you in. The threats within the world, named “Greavers”, are Cronenbergian creatures. Fleshy centres held up by mechanical spider-like legs mean they sprint across, above and around the walls. They’re more akin to the raptors in Jurassic Park than Shelob in Lord of the Rings. The directorial-debut from Wes Ball, this is a filmmaker who clearly looks to Spielberg and the Wachowski’s for inspiration. Many moments often hint at themes and stylistic flourishes that echo The Matrix. In both films our protagonist is trapped in a world he is desperate to escape, and there is a conflict whereby Gally has acclimatised to ‘The Glade’ in the same manner Cypher preferred the matrix.
But these comparisons are not meant as negative criticism. Clunky lines and predictable dialogue aside (“What if he doesn’t come back?”/”He’ll come back”/”But what if he doesn’t?”/”He’ll be back.”) it remains thoroughly entertaining. The characters are likeable and the story nonsensical (When Kaya Scodelario turns up she seems to only create more confusion - barely any of these "haven't-seen-a-woman-in-years" teenage boys fancy her?) , but the childish enjoyment of getting lost in a vast space of interlocking walls and rooms proves itself once again. On some level, there is game of logic at play – and this life-size puzzle is what keeps you sat in your seat, in the same way as Saw, Cube and the final part of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire did.
The Maze Runner is flawed, as many teenage book-adaptations are (Twilight, The Hunger Games, etc), but it’s influenced by the better blockbusters (from before the comic-book take-over). The small-scale of the story is the centre-piece and it wisely hints at the larger picture in the final act only. When we meet the cliché suited woman-in-white, you know you’ve met her before but it’s all part of the fun (was she in the background of Elysium?) A diverse cast, fast-pace and boardgame-like story manages to keep you thoroughly interested. It’s like a rollercoaster – fun and fast-paced, but everything sometimes looks the same.