Well, we got there: 2014 was able to produce a sci-fi/thriller YA adaptation that's uglier than Divergent from back in March. Which isn't something I'd have necessarily predicted as a possibility, let alone a likelihood, and it doesn't strike me as being a sensible place to sink all that much time and energy. But the creators of the The Maze Runner did just that, no matter how much first-time feature director Wes Ball promises that he was trying to channel Terrence Malick in shaping the visuals of a movie that has about as little to do with Malick's soft natural exteriors and slow, steady camera movements as is possible for anything that takes place mostly outside.

(Anyway, The Hunger Games kind of already was the sci-fi/thriller YA picture to sort of crib from Malick. And it was a hell of a lot better at it).

Adapted by no fewer than three credited writers from James Dashner's 2007 book - which means, to his credit, that he wasn't riding the post-Hunger Games YA dystopia wave - The Maze Runner is about a super-special teenaged chosen one who has to crack the mystery of what's going on in a high-tech prison of sorts where unseen adult masterminds make him and several other adolescents dance like puppets. That whole thing. Also, do note the "him" part; our protagonist this time around is a certain young man named Thomas (Dylan O'Brien), and virtually the entire population of "The Glade" - a large meadow and forest enclosed on all sides by enormous stone walls - is likewise male, which deprives The Maze Runner of the one thing that Divergent at least managed to have going for it in amongst all of its sorriness, which is that it gave the world one of the far too rare female protagonists in an action movie.

What happens to Thomas in the Glade isn't quite Lord of the Flies, though it has echoes: the whole population of 40 or fewer boys ranging from about twelve to about eighteen (or anyway the "squint and pretend they're eighteen" age common to movies about teenagers and pornography) exists separate from the rest of humanity, or even the knowledge of humanity: they were all stripped of memories of anything but their given name before being dumped, one per month for three years, into the Glade, wearing the most lazily-designed clothing I would ever hope to see in a movie of this sort (seriously, it looks like off-the-rack stuff from Sears or J.C. Penny's, covered in a halfhearted layer of dust). And thus they have formed a primitive society of laws, traditions, and division of labor, overseen by the Glade's very first inhabitant, Alby (Aml Ameen), and his loyal second in command Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and defended by the thuggish Gally (Will Poulter), whose adoration of the laws and traditions would undoubtedly make him a religious fundamentalist, if the Glade-dwellers had gotten as far as a religion yet. Also, when a girl (Kaya Scodelario) unexpectedly shows up, she incites not a drop of sexual ardor among any of the three-dozen teenage boys who have never once in their memories interacted with a female, which is meant to be a respite from the love stories in all those YA tales with women protagonists, I guess (The Maze Runner is clearly a "for the boys in the crowd" sort of story), but only ends up making them seem like implausibly emotionless robots and robbing the film of any measure of emotional stakes.

Thomas's, that is to say the viewer's, introduction to this world is a fucking miracle of filmmaking: Ball and cinematography Enrique Chediak shoot with cramped, unpleasant angles inside an underlit metal cage that we can only make out as an impression of shapes, while Dan Zimmerman's editing darts from one acute angle to the next in confusing, non-linear progression, as the lighting and sound effects conspire to give us the impression of dreadfully fast upward speed in the world's most angrily clamorous freight elevator. He emerges into the sunlight and the editing absolutely refuses to let up, throwing unidentified teenagers at us from angles that make no sense. And then Thomas runs, face-plants, and passes out. Every single frame of the movie up till this point is perfect, or close to it: an instantaneously disorienting mess of sounds and images colliding incoherently, plunging us right into the thick of the mystery: what the hell is going on and where the hell is it going on and why the hell and who the hell? Unfortunately, it becomes increasingly clear as the film progresses that, no matter how expertly the distracting editing and unbalanced framing have been employed to create a real barnburner of an opening, it's also kind of an accident, since a lot of the rest of The Maze Runner functions mostly the same way, to absolutely no effect other than to suggest that the filmmakers either are, themselves, visually and cinematically illiterate, or they presume their audience is, and requires lots of flash and quick movement and noise to remain entertained.

Meanwhile, as the filmmaking keeps wandering around being busy and distracting, the script starts the exposition dumps, of which there are many, and they don't ever let up. Early on, when Thomas is still terrified, confused, and suspicious, there's at least enough lingering tension to make all of this talking and explicating feel like it's building up to something. Eventually, though, we know most of what we need to know - the Glade is surrounded by an enormous maze, and at night unpersuasive CGI monsters stalk the maze, and "runners" dash through the maze by day, mapping it and looking for ways out - that Thomas can go on being the only one curious and brave enough to figure out what's going on, over the increasingly rage-filled objections of Gally. There's a version of this story that has some keen insights on the formation of traditions and taboos, and how adolescents are or are not cowed by peer pressure, but The Maze Runner does not come within leagues of being that version.

Eventually, we do find out what's going on, thanks to a soul-despairing cameo by one of our greatest, most consistently under-used actresses, Patricia Clarkson, stuck in what absolutely has got to be the worst role of her career, and the reveals make absolutely no sense on any level. And then, in case the reveals weren't horrible enough, there are two subsequent twists that cannot conceivably have happened in any real-world version of the events we see depicted. The last ten minutes of The Maze Runner are an insult: nonsense masquerading as shocking reversals, unpredictable only because they are so arbitrarily surreal and confusing. It is not the kind of ending that makes you want to find out what happened next: is the kind of ending that leaves you anxious to find out almost literally anything else, since as monumentally fucked in the skull as they left everything, "what happens next" can only be the very worst kind of thing. So obviously, they've already announced the sequel, and I look forward to seeing y'all back in this space exactly one year from now.

Reviews in this series
The Maze Runner (Ball, 2014)
Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (Ball, 2015)
Maze Runner: The Death Cure (Ball, 2018)