Monday, November 24, 2014

Don't Wanna Be A Dystopian Idiot

Year: 2014
Director: Wes Ball
Cast: Dylan O'Brien, Aml Ameen, Will Poulter
Run Time: 1 hour 53 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

The room is cold and dark. You can hear others around you, murmuring in confusion. Through the gloom all you can see is slate gray walls, oppressive in their austerity. All hope is lost. Have you woken up in a dismal dystopia? A grim reminder of the path our society is implacably heading down?

Nope, you're in a movie theater in 2014. Every couple of months, Hollywood brings us some fresh hell conjured up from the seemingly inexhaustible pool of dystopian young adult literature, whether it be the relatively stately The Giver, the insipid and quickly forgotten Divergent, or this week's inevitable blockbuster Mockingjay - Part One (based on the most irritating portion of the most irritating Hunger Games book - a real recipe for success).

Our topic for the day is yet another of those films - September's The Maze Runner, which evens the scales by being almost confrontationally typical.

Each stone block represents another YA adaptation's corpse that this film pilfers from.

Typically, this is the part of the review where we complain about the liberties that the film takes with the book and how it bastardizes the original property's legacy. Take a deep breath. Find your center. Get ready for this fresh air. The Maze Runner is miles better than the book, actively improving upon its dreadful, leaden prose. 

Though it suffers from being stuck with the broad strokes of the source material (this being an adaptation and all), The Maze Runner largely reduces the book's infuriating Diablo Cody-lite slang and many of its conspicuously imbecilic plot beats. Also gone is its grating tendency to capitalize just about every noun with any shred of importance to the story ("Thomas walked down The Path toward The Tree to complete The Bathroomening."), though by nature of being a visual medium it would have done so regardless.

That said, The Maze Runner's still not a terrific story, weighed down as it is with paper-thin characters and a heaping helping of ass-stupid dialogue. But the ways in which it is monumentally better than the outrageously dire book are worth noting until the cows come home. And, this being a dystopia and all, the cow species has probably been wiped out so we have plenty of time.

Olly olly oxen free!

So. Thomas (Teen Wolf's Dylan O'Brien) wakes up in an elevator as it lifts him into a walled-off Glade. He has no memory of his life, nor idea of where he might be. He soon discovers that he has arrived at a Camp filled with boys led by the altruistic Alby (Aml Ameen). After an interminably lengthy time, the boys finally decide to explain what's actually going on, as far as they know.

Basically, every month one boy is lifted into the Glade along with supplies. They are surrounded by walls on all sides. Every day, a door opens up that leads into a Maze. There are people known as Runners who try to map the maze. Every night the doors close and the Maze is patrolled by Grievers, strange biomechanial flea-slug-scorpion monsters that are surprisingly not the worst-rendered CGI I've ever seen. Yadda yadda yadda, nobody survives the Maze. Because Thomas is a Special Flower, he is convinced he will be able to help the boys find a way out.

I really don't care to discuss Maze Mythology in detail with you all, especially because of how little gravity the Maze actually invokes upon the plot. What with it being in the Title and all, you might assume it would be a little more important than it eventually ends up being, but you would be woefully mistaken. So - the boys are trapped, Thomas only wants to help although he tends to muck things up even more, and we don't even get to see them explore the Maze all that much.

And there's not a David Bowie codpiece in sight.

The remainder of the plot tumbles through a variety of hoary Tropes including, but not limited to Give It To Them Yourself, a preponderance of Dream Sequences, a half-hearted Love Interest that is (exquisitely) tossed to the side almost immediately, and a "massacre" in which every boy with a name or a line of dialogue gets off scot-free. If I had a mind to pick at Holes, The Maze Runner would be more tattered than my favorite childhood blankie.

The writing is likewise quite nefarious, challenging audience patience as the characters try to decipher such arcane and mysterious Clues as "What does the note 'She's the last one' mean?" or "What could this metal device marked '7' possibly have to do with the eight zones labelled '1' through '8'?!?" Never mind the fact that the villainous Organization in charge of this whole affair is called - and I'm not kidding - "W.C.K.D." - affording us all the exclusive opportunity to hear the phrase "Wicked is good" repeated ad infinitum.

Although, again, Context is everything. Things don't seem so bad when you realize that in the book, the company was literally just called "W.I.C.K.E.D." with its own aggrieved Acronym to match.

Honestly, I'm pushing the screenwriters for an Oscar nod solely because they somehow made this trite garbage even a little bit more subtle.

At least The Maze Runner is shot competently enough, despite its obligatory YA reliance on Handheld Camerawork, even in long pans or insert shots where it really has no business being. There is a nice reliance on blackness in the editing, mirroring the opening and closing of the mysterious walls surrounding the boys. The production design is expressive and expansive, effectively evoking what a lived-in community run by teen boys might theoretically look like. And the mostly-CGI Maze doesn't show a crack, allowing the viewer to be immersed in the world onscreen.

Perhaps the most consistently terrific element of the film is its Sound Design, which evokes the silent mystery of things that go bump in the night far better than the plot properly deserves. This keeps the tone in check, especially in the moments where it tilts into horror territory. And there are a lot of these moments, whether it be a nod at zombieism (don't ask), a Teen Graveyard, or a monster attack. It's actually rather Cabin in the Woods-y, an eclectic mix of tropes compressed together in a closed-off environment controlled by unseen forces.

So despite some flaws in the Acting (Kaya Scodelario - as the useless love interest - chomps around in a poor attempt to disguise the British accent clawing its way out of her tortured throat and Dylan O'Brien provides far too little motivation to augment the thinness of his character), at least The Maze Runner looks and sounds decent, which allows the other manifold Grievances to slide down much more smoothly. 

It also really doesn't hurt to have a couple attractive actors lying around.

The Ending - which ladles out a Tolkienian level of unrelated Exposition setting up the second film - is wildly unsatisfying, preventing the film from operating as an individual story with a contained conclusion. And the Reveal is bonkers, providing perhaps the most arbitrary and thoughtless villainous plan in cinema history including all the James Bond films.

Whatever happened to just a knife, some teens, and a little stage blood being enough?

It is typical of dystopian fiction to reveal a Flaw in our Society, one that could lead us into the world we see now. The Hunger Games has its stabs at class disparity. Most of the others (like Divergent and The Giver, from what I've read) espouse standing up for individuality in a sea of conformity. But The Maze Runner is as shallow as the Grave it dug for itself by allowing a second film to be greenlit.

It occupies the time well enough, preventing the two Hours it takes out of your life from dragging. And it's decent enough as a mechanical teenybopper thriller, setting up all the pieces and knocking them down in unsurprising but generically satisfying ways. But by stripping the bedraggled Genre of the one vital thematic piece that keeps it thriving, The Maze Runner prevents itself from rising above the muck.

All in all, The Maze Runner is not a Bad Film, though it's a supremely unnecessary one. Fans will certainly get a kick out of it (if they can manage choke down that prose and smile, this film will be like Citizen Kane to them), but the casual YA enthusiast might want to steer clear.

TL;DR: The Maze Runner is perfectly average low-grade entertainment that is at least better than the book it's based on.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1459

No comments:

Post a Comment