“The Maze Runner” Astounds with a Predictably Indecipherably Labyrinthian and Nebulously Insufferable Plot

Don’t ask me what The Maze Runner was about because I have absolutely no idea. It’s got a story about as cryptic as its titular labyrinth.

Sure, I sat through two hours of forced dialogue and exposition, an illogically quickening plot, and honest to goodness splendid action sequences, but I have neither a comprehension of what actually happened nor an understanding of what the movie was trying to say. I don’t know what I should think about the movie because never did things crystallize or cohere into anything meaningful. The Maze Runner was just sort of a thing that happened in my life one rainy Sunday afternoon in late September of 2014. While the story was a mystery that remained a mystery throughout, creating more questions than it did provide answers, it sort of forgot to give me a legitimate reason to care. This isn’t to say that the movie is without merit; it’s an exciting yet superficial thrill ride. The narrative is compelling enough, but it’s all far too derivative of a mish-mash of contradictory sources: Lord of the Flies (kids living in the woods). The Hunger Games (forced and trapped kids living in the woods while being watched). LOST (all-around confusion, shoddy shelter, and monsters in the night). The Giver (some sort of post-apocalypitic societal manipulation and a young hero). Battlestar Galactica (techno-organic monster and set design). 28 Days Later (zombie rage virus). Resident Evil: Extinction (Sand. Extinction. Hot. Oh, and “zombie rage virus”). Wild Wild West (robot spiders). Cabin in the Woods (a twist so contrived and meta you lose all comprehension of what meta even means). The Legend of Bagger Vance (green pastures).

Just kidding on that last one. But why not throw it in there? That seems to be the motto of whomever concocted this masterpiece story.

Michael Bay makes “bad” movies on purpose because he’s pandering to an audience that sort of loves bad movies with flash and pop. People love explosions, technology, and hot chicks, so Bay delivers on all three and every film he churns out is a substance-less blockbuster. The studios love him because he makes money. Self-respecting film critics hate him because he proliferates everything that’s awful about contemporary society. So it goes.

I can’t tell whether or not The Maze Runner is trying to do the same, by playing on familiar tropes and premises that work time and again (post-apocalyptic fiction, the “specialness” of the young hero, ridiculous feats of strength, man vs. monster) in a money-grubbing ploy, or if it earnestly tried to craft an exciting YA story and just tried to do too damn much that it all slipped through somebody’s fingers.

From the cold open on the main character being hurtled upwards in a terrifying elevator cage, we know that The Maze Runner is going to be a well-executed adventure. The cinematography really is undeniably splendid. The whole thing is beautifully well-shot with pretty set pieces and the special effects of the shifting maze and the techno-organic spider monsters look great. Our main character wakes up with amnesia (only remembering his name several hours later: Thomas) and is ushered into the culture in the Glade. The Glade is surrounded on all sides by high stone walls. A massive maze stretches out in all directions beyond the walls. There is only one exit out into the maze that opens every morning and closes around sunset. The maze constantly shifts and monsters lurk in its chambers; predictably, everybody is scared pantsless by the thing. Nobody remembers who they were before arriving in the Glade. No memory of parents, friends, or what the outside life is like. They only get to keep their name.

Every month, a Greenie (newbie slang term) is sent up via the elevator with crates of supplies and livestock to replenish the culture on the Glade. Alby (who is decidedly NOT a racist dragon), the boy who’s been there the longest, is the wizened leader who preaches order and adherence to the rules. Newt, whom you might recognize as the thin-limbed and now very dead (sorry about that one, but why is that show so violent at times?) Jojen Reed from Game of Thrones, is the second-in-command and resident gardener. Thomas quickly befriends the short, pudgy Chuck while making fast enemies with the perpetually angry Gally (who was such a nice boy in We’re the Millers — what happened?). Rounding out the noteworthy faces in the Glade is Minho, whose job in this society is “Runner” — he runs out into the maze every day with the intention of mapping it.

For the most part, everything in this society is idyllic. They work hard and help each other; everybody does their part and things are peaceful (mainly because the rabble-rousers were exiled and killed long before Thomas got there). Thomas ushers in a new era of problems for everyone. He asks too many questions, wonders why they don’t try harder to escape. He wonders who put them there whereas many of the other boys are content to live out their humble existence. He’s curious, like a cat, and that’s why his friends call him whiskers. But there are threats within the walls of the Glade as well: anybody who gets “Stung” quickly descends into a rage monster, not quite as crazy or incoherent as 28 Days Later, but still pretty bad. Nobody ever really describes what does the Stinging or even remotely how it happens, or even how long it takes to transform the victim. All we know is that it is next to fatal. More and more people begin getting Stung and things quickly spiral out of control. Before you know it, all their lives are in jeopardy. Lah-dee-dah-dee-dah.

Can you imagine: that’s less than one-third of the plot!

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I’m not spoiling anything for you when I admit that Thomas does indeed become a Maze Runner and make his way into the maze with companion Minho, who is somehow stoic, indecipherable yet inexplicably likable. The deeper they plunge, the more layers they peel away from the mystery in this story. The film’s middle act is honestly spectacular, but the greatest issue I take is the hodge-podge nature of the story and a rushed and nonsensical first act. Immediately upon arrival, Thomas is tossed in a jail. Within seconds, Alby pulls him out and gives him the grand tour. He’s kind, gracious, and generous with his time. Everybody refuses to talk about the maze, or even acknowledge its existence, for a solid half hour. No wonder why Thomas gets curious. After the 30 minutes are up, everybody just spills their guts and tell Thomas everything they know. Why? I don’t know. #forcedsuspense.

Another issue? One of the three absolute rules is that nobody can harm another Glader, yet angry shoulder-padded Gally wrestles with Thomas and deliberately harms him at their booze-fueled campfire celebration. Nobody cares. Nobody does or says anything about it. Meanwhile, all of the exposition strewn throughout the beginning of the movie is a bit irritating, mainly due to really bad, forced dialogue and acting difficulties from our lead. He comes into his own by the end, but only after he is forced to rise to the occasion and become our hero.

The other massive issue with this movie? Its treatment of women.

TeresaThomas

Because you are not a boy.

The thing about the Glade is that they are all boys. Mere days after Thomas’s arrival, Alby’s life hangs in the balance and up comes the cage box with a a beautiful unconscious girl in it. The only thing with her is a note that reads, “She is the last one.” I’m not sure if I’m the problem here and are reading too much into it, but it seems to me that the author of this story blatantly ignored all sorts of gang rape implications that this has. Here we have a micro-society with dozens of pubescent males that suddenly gets handed an unconscious female. They dawdle a bit, confused, “What do we do with her?” Because we know absolutely nothing about the captors, we can only assume that this is part of the social experiment. These boys are to live forever in the glade, growing their own food and reproducing…with one female. Perhaps to counteract this implication, there is a scene immediately following this where the girl, Teresa, is throwing rocks down at the boys from atop a tower. It’s a bit silly and childish. The boys giggle. Chuck or somebody else goes, “Girls are SO cool!” A rock hits Gally in the head. He grunts. We love it, because Gally sucks. But think about this: here we have a bunch of boys, literally holding shields, while they approach a female in a tower trying to fend them off. Am I the only one to find these implications outrageous?

It would be excusable perhaps, this being YA fare, if the movie went on to give Teresa a prominent or significant role. But it doesn’t. Her purpose? To wake up, murmuring Thomas’s name as if only to confirm our suspicions that he is indeed special. After she arrives, she just sort of runs along with everyone else, saying remarkably little and providing a loyal testament to Thomas’s specialness (the two had some sort of relationship pre-Glade, but of course that is never explained). I wonder how many of her scenes were left on the cutting room floor, but YA film or not this is one of the biggest failures of the Bechdel Test that I have encountered in recent history. Teresa has zero significance that is unattached to Thomas. Even establishing that the two of them were actually an item before getting their memories wiped would have been preferable to her complete lack of a role. There is another named female that was in charge of the experiment, but it’s impossible to remember her name. And all she does? Confirm Thomas’s specialness. Bleh. Bechdel Test, failed.

All that being said, The Maze Runner appears to be one of the best and widely seen movies of the Fall so far, which is frustrating to me. Mind you, it’s still very early…and nothing good has come out. If you can come out of the first act still watching The Maze Runner and don’t mind the only female role being virtually nonexistent, then you just might stand to have an enjoyable experience with this movie.

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