I'm a sucker for a big, mythic mystery. And that is what I was expecting from The Maze Runner, a sci-fi film that starts by thrusting the audience into a big mystery.
The story kicks off with a teenage boy (Dylan O'Brien) being sent up an industrial elevator with a myriad of supplies. He is rocketed up in darkness until he reaches the top where it opens up to a walled in glen populated by other teenage boys.
None of the boys can remember anything other than their names (the new boy soon remembers that his is Thomas), but they have built a livable society in that walled in glen that seems limited, but sustainable. Everyone has a job. Alby (Ami Amee) is the most senior and the default leader. Gally (Will Poulter) is the tough one. Newt (Thomas Brody-Sangster) is the cerebral second in command. Chuck (Blake Cooper) is the young, innocent comic relief.
There is one opening that closes every night and opens every morning. In that path is the maze. Boys have been assigned to be Maze Runners who map out the maze to find a way out. No one has spent a night in the maze and lived. For 3 years, the boys have been living there trapped and no one knows why.
But Thomas is different. He is curious and he is an original thinker. With the exception of running the maze, most people in the glen are content with their lives. Thomas questions the rules by which they live which sets the rest of the plot into motion.
One of the very nice things about the story is that it doesn't wait too long until it starts throwing up the established rules. The set up is excellent at filling you with fear about the unknown maze, especially about the mysterious "Grievers" that inhabit it. The rules don't feel like sheepish obedience. You can understand how strict discipline has been necessary for basic survival. So when Thomas starts upsetting the apple cart it feels like an incredibly dangerous act to everyone.
It is hard to talk about the rest of the plot without giving away the surpising plot points. But Thomas' main question is why? Why are they there? Why put them in a maze at all? Why take away their memories? The story does a good job of showing that hope and freedom, while precious, require a lot of risk and sacrifice. There are some like Sliverweed in Watership Down or Brooks in The Shawshank Redemption who have come to depend on their prison walls. Fear of what is beyond has paralyzed them from reaching out.
The action is fast-paced and director Wes Ball does an excellent job with his first feature. Every new discovery leads to new possiblities and new dangers. He is able to capture the grandure and danger of every moment in the maze. He is also able to get some fairly good performances out of his young cast.
What I espescially like about his direction is the sense of both grandeur and clostrophobia. Like the low-budget sci-fi classic Cube, the Maze is frought with everchanging danger. And while the walls are high and some of the space is big, Ball also makes you feel how the walls are closing in and can literally cut you off.
The biggest downside of the story is the ending. This is the first in a trilogy and it feels like they withheld a lot for the next chapter. So if your investment in the movie is based purely on having the mystery resoloved, like Cube, you will be disappointed.
But I have to say that the story now has me hooked. And I now want to know what happens next to those who survive the maze.
3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars