The more Dystopia-laced these Young Adult movie adaptations get, the more they’re really about high school. Let’s examine the evidence.
Films based on books with mainstream youth appeal is now one of the hottest brands in film right now. Rarely a season goes by that we don’t see some New York Times Bestseller made into a big budget film, for an audience of kids, Radio Disney age and up.
Of late, the YA film genre, which exploded with the arrival of Harry Potter, the Narnia kids and those pesky Twilight vampires, has found vast appeal in recreating dour sci-fi cautionary tales for teens.
It seems the future is bleak, as the world we know will be contained and controlled by powerful, adult figures, embodied by either Donald Sutherland, Kate Winslet, Meryl Streep or even Bill Murray. The cast will consist of mostly attractive young teens, who battle their oppressors’ hold on their society and overall authority.
Sci-fi may be the genre “The Hunger Games,” “The Giver,” “Divergent,” “City of Ember” and the latest, “The Maze Runner” are labeled with. Yet, we’re actually talking about high school. These societies of teens are representative of the variety of clicks, partnerships and diversity of classmates one encounters in high school. The worlds they must escape from are controlling, exude old world values and make time feel slower and the future non-existent…which is exactly what sitting in a high school chemistry class is like. The battles these teens undergo, either amongst themselves or against their captors, are a physical representation of the gauntlet of challenges one faces when dealing with peer pressure or studying for a test. These films are popular with their core audience of teens because, if you put aside the CGI and shiny sets, you’d have an episode of “90210.”
The quality of the films are consistent, though there is an inevitable sameness to them. What makes “The Maze Runner” stand out is how kinetic it is. The opening somewhat resembles the exhilarating introduction in “Predators,” as a young man awakens to find himself soaring in motion to a new world. Thomas discovers he’s trapped in a forest of similarly bewildered teen boys, who are imprisoned by invisible forces, who manipulate a massive maze. Thomas’ insistence on escape is inspiring and familiar: “We didn’t ask to be here, we don’t want to stay here and we have to get out. Now” I used to say that every morning during my Freshman year.
What transpires has the plot and character dynamics of “Lord of the Flies,” though William Golding’s novel was grittier and didn’t have sci-fi tropes to soften it. There are seen-it-before arguments over who wants to challenge the maze, who has the guts to lead and who wants to just hang out and do nothing. Once we enter the maze (and it happens sooner than expected, without an extended build up), the movie entertains mightily.
Inside the maze are combative monsters. All I’ll reveal about these scenes is that they have the jaw clenching intensity of “Jurassic Park” and pack loads of excitement and suspense.
“The Maze Runner” wisely doesn’t allow a potential romance to slow down or distract the core of the story, which is grimmer and more violent than I expected. Young children should wait until they’re older to see this , but teens who grew up on Hogwarts will probably find themselves dazzled by this. I was taken aback by how good the special effects are, as I couldn’t tell where the CGI and oversized sets began and ended.
The cast is full of actors you’ll recognize by face but not by name (there’s the kid from “Love Actually”! That’s the guy who rapped to TLC from “We’re the Millers”!). Everyone in the cast does good work, though no one steps up and takes hold of the movie the way Jennifer Lawrence does playing Katnis Everdeen.
The ending is mostly satisfying but comes dangerously close to overkill, with the re-appearance of one character lacking any sense. Like any intended franchise to be, we get the set-up for a sequel. Unlike the cliffhanger endings of YA turkeys “Eragon” or “The Host,” this presents a series I’d be happy to see again.