“The Maze Runner” Sprints Across the Box-Office Finish Line

Casey St. Charnez - September 22, 2014

{Currently opened in September on two screens at the southside Regal Stadium 14 off Zafarano Drive at 12:30, 1:00, 3:30, 4:00, 6:30, 7:00, 9:20, and 9:50pm. Rated [PG-13] for fistfights, some language, and fear-ridden suspense.}

The new 20th Century-Fox release The Maze Runner easily outpaced its competitors this past weekend, as U.S. moviegoers ponied up about $32.5 million to see this latest entry in the young-adult franchise steeplechase.

The international take was another $37.6 million. Accordingly, Fox has skedded the improbably titled sequel, The Scrotch Trials, for release on September 16, 2015. It is rumored to shoot on location here in New Mexico.

Now I’m no young adult—not a surprise, dear readers, see my picture above--but the world of YA fiction can be, to me and many others, a most satisfying [PG-13] alternative to the more anything-goes world of [R]-rated books and movies. Behavioral codes are still sacrosanct in YA, heroism is virtuous instead of laughably futile, themes are large, and strokes are broad.

The attraction of good rewarded and evil punished, albeit in a morally greyer world--alongside the onslaught of pubertal hormones, the push push push of peer pressure, the testing of boundaries, and the unexpected discovery of fortitude-- binds all kinds of narratives together, stories often science-fictional, fantastical, and/or supernatural.

(You can read more about the YA literary demographic here

Summit’s vampire/werewolf Twilight brand, for instance (from Stephenie Meyer’s novels), and Lionsgate’s dystopian The Hunger Games tentpole (from Suzanne Collins’ YA-ers) are notably emblematic of the genre. Less successful entries, like The Giver, Divergent, Beautiful Creatures, The Mortal Instruments, and Ender’s Game also pass the entrance exam, though less robustly.

Like movies for grown-ups, each of the books and movies has varying degrees and amounts of brutal violence, sex scenes, emotional trauma, and rude language.

And The Maze Runner, adapted from the 2009 novel by James Dashner (like all these works, available at the SFe Public Library) is no exception to any of the above, although it is kind of a plotline mash-up.

We start with this: A motley crew of plane crash survivors finds itself stranded on a mysterious island, where something is not quite right. They might be dreaming the whole thing, they might be dead and this is purgatory, they might be guinea pigs in an experiment of either terrestrial or extraterrestrial making, or both. Think: Lost.

Then add this: A band of British schoolboys washes ashore on a desert island after a shipwreck, and must fend and forage with little hope of rescue. Their attempt at forming a civilization among themselves works for a while, then devolves into factionism, warring sides, finally death. Think: Lord of the Flies.

The two together form The Maze Runner, as Thomas (Dylan O’Brien, “Stiles” on TV’s Teen Wolf) wakes up in a forest with no memory of how he got there. Eventually he more or less is accepted as a member of the boys-only community, which over the course of the three years they’ve all been there, has learned how to exist, even thrive, on its own.

Trouble is, they’re stuck in a safety zone, an oasis surrounded on all sides by towering, unscalable metal walls that are the entrance to an ever-changing labyrinth of dangers, not the least of which are fearsome arachnoid cyborgs they’ve dubbed Grievers, who hunt and sting to death anyone who tries to get to whatever lies on the other side of the deadly maze.

So what’s really happening?

Is this a prison? If so, then what are all the resident amnesiacs guilty of, and what are they being punished for?

Is this a test? If so, who are the examiners and how does one score an A and graduate?

Is this some odd form of military training exercise? If so, then where’s the war?

Or is this even planet Earth?

Then the first girl ever to appear in the glade suddenly shows up (Kaya Scodelario, “Cathy” in the 2011 Wuthering Heights) and everything changes, as, of course, it would. Teresa’s presence really perturbs the band’s teen dictator Gally (Will Poulter, nerdy “Kenny” in the New Mexico-filmed We’re the Millers), and the race to escape begins. Who will make it out alive…if anyone?

My Web research reveals notable differences between book and film including the fact that the producers dropped the telepathy angle between Thomas and Teresa. There are several other variants, which you may read about here.

Gotta say, I was somewhat blind-sided by the end, which utilized a third-act denouement of surprising revelation for which I was unprepared, not having read the book. But this explanatory raison d’etre leads to yet another door, opening onto yet another Big Mystery that will be investigated only in the next movie.

Thus it is that The Maze Runner is not self-contained, but is, instead, merely the 113-minute opening chapter in author Dashner’s ongoing series, which is up to four books now.

Therefore, neither ask nor expect resolution. Just go with it, and if you like it, prepare yourself to go again a year from now and be ready for another puzzling cliffhanger.

Think: The Empire Strikes Back.