Dylan O'Brien is the sidekick on the hit MTV series Teen Wolf. He plays the only character who isn't supernatural. He's the comic relief. He's very cute, charming and funny. It makes sense some Hollywood executive would make him the lead in a blockbuster.
Yet, he has the same appeal as Joseph Gordon-Levitt or a Shia LaBeouf. The problem is that when it comes to boys like O'Brien in the acting industry, they're a dime-a-dozen, and in this film, there really isn't anything that makes him stand out that isn't plot dictated.
O'Brien plays Thomas, a young man who wakes up with no memory inside a box. That box is in an elevator that lifts him in to an open, grassy area, bounded by some woods in the middle of a giant, mechanical maze. When he gets out the elevator, he sees dozens of other young men who tell him they're all trapped. They live and have free reign of a few acres, but the skyscraper-like walls of the maze keep them trapped. The elevator deposits food supplies and new amnesiac boys every month, but that's it.
There's no communication with anyone beyond the walls, so the boys have developed a bit of a society and a hierarchy within the grassy area, which they call the Glades. The leader of which is a black, young man named Alby, played by Aml Ameen (Kidulthood and Lee Daniels' The Butler). There are various other boys who have various functions, but the function that gets all the real attention is the "maze runner."
It's explained to Thomas that every morning, a slot in one of the four walls opens, which allows some of the boys to leave the grassy area and enter the maze and explore it. The boys who do this are called "maze runners." The only wrinkle is that they have to be back by sunset because that's when the slot closes, and they get trapped in the maze.
This is bad because after sunset, monsters are unleashed to patrol the maze called "grievers." The grievers are very scary because they kill anyone in the maze after sunset. Plus, they look like huge spiders with mechanical legs. Some boys have obviously died at the legs of the grievers, so Alby's plan is to have the maze runners explore during the day and map the whole thing, bit by bit, in the hopes of solving it and finding at way out.
On a basic level, it's reminiscent of The Twilight Zone episode entitled, "Five Characters in Search of an Exit," from Season 3. That 1961 episode was clever and powerful in that its ultimate conceit was so simple that if you'd never seen it before, you'd never guess the explanation of why these people were trapped. M. Night Shyamalan pulled off a similar trick in The Village (2004). However, this film doesn't. It fails by complicating the explanation, which ironically made the ending easier to guess.
Most people make the comparison to Lord of the Flies, but if you've ever seen the short-lived, NBC series Persons Unknown (2010), this movie is essentially that. It's Divergent meets The Truman Show, but instead of being the best of both worlds, it's likely the worst or the easiest. It's a riff of the TV series Lost but instead of something unique like a smoke monster, it throws at us the grievers, which are boringly derivative of Edge of Tomorrow, The Matrix and Aliens-style monsters we've seen time again.
For a film titled The Maze Runner, it's actually less about the maze. The maze is just a series of high walls. Its geography is never truly grasped, which is fine because the movie seems to want to be about the boys' trapped society. Yet, it doesn't really delve into the characters like Alby. It gives lip-service to him, but we really get less of a sense of him than we should. The other boys are all basically one note. It all feels contrived so that by the end a shocking death felt completely hollow. The reaction of characters to that death was also totally overblown.
I also had the same problem with this film as I had with the Harry Potter films after the third or so. It's the incredulous lack of sex. The boys here are mostly teenage, if not older, and some of them have been there for years. I suppose I understand Thomas' singular preoccupation with escape. His time there is brief, but for someone like Alby who has been there the longest, the idea that he could be so chaste or there wouldn't be some gay interactions seems preposterous, or at least some talk about it would be expected.
One Star out of Five. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action, including some disturbing images. Running Time: 1 hr. and 53 mins.