Ode to the Curious — “The Maze Runner”

The Maze Runner lead

by Gabe Valdez

When I was younger, almost all my scripts and stories started the same way. A man or woman wakes up somewhere mysterious, not knowing who they were or how they got there. It’s the easiest set-up in the world. It takes the burden off of the characters and puts it on shaping the story’s world.

Since then, I’ve learned to expand my repertoire, but that simple amnesiac set-up is what allows The Maze Runner to deliver a tight, fast-paced sci-fi tale. Based on the young adult novel of the same name, the film follows Thomas (Dylan O’Brien). He arrives in a community of young men, all amnesiacs, though some have been here for years. Their safe glade is surrounded by a towering maze. They’re trapped, but a select few explore the maze by day and return at night when ravenous monsters called Grievers hunt.

Obviously, Thomas will become one of these maze runners – it’s in the title – and try to find a way out. I mentioned a few weeks ago that inexpensive sci-fi movies are often forced to choose between good acting and their visual effects budget. The Maze Runner skirts this issue in a few very smart ways.

Maze Runner contemplation

Every actor is a young unknown, so they don’t cost a high salary. O’Brien has the most developed career among them, and that’s only because he’s a lead on MTV’s Teen Wolf. This is the first I’ve seen of him, and he’s a fascinating choice for the lead. He downplays dramatic dialogue, which lends his performance realism, but commits wholesale to the physicality of his role. Every time Thomas is knocked down, grabbed, chased, or otherwise wrenched around, O’Brien sells the moment perfectly.

The two biggest action scenes happen at night. They’re filmed well – you can tell what’s going on – but the darkness saves incredible amounts of money by requiring less fine detail in the CGI. It also aids the film’s horror trappings.

The musical score by John Paesano – his first for a major film – is superb, evoking John Williams during some of its finer moments. Similarly, the sound, production design, and cinematography all stand out. If anything, The Maze Runner reminds me of last Fall’s Ender’s Game, and not even for its subject matter, although there are passing similarities. Both hone in on a set of technical elements done well while diminishing the importance of what they couldn’t afford.

Maze Runner Griever Chase

Both are sci-fi movies that triumph not on overarching vision and vast spectacle, but on character psychology and getting the details of every moment right. They trim all the fat off, leaving only the meat of the story remaining. The only misstep in The Maze Runner is an awkwardly tacked-on ending that over-explains the movie’s mysteries. Still, it doesn’t take much away from the earlier experience.

Like other young adult fare – The Hunger Games, Divergent, even this year’s Captain America entry – The Maze Runner centers on a young outlier who bucks a system designed to hold his or her friends down. What all these movies share isn’t the idea that it’s the bravest or most macho who solves a crisis. One word keeps coming up in The Maze Runner, and all these heroes share this one common superpower: “curiosity.”

Curiosity lets us see the world from someone else’s perspective so that we might better understand a struggle beyond our own. Curiosity lets us know that it’s not being strong that’s important, it’s knowing when to be strong and when to stay your hand. We don’t need to lead all the time, we need to recognize when our leadership is needed and useful. Curiosity makes the best traits in us more effective, and less prone to misuse.

This theme speaks to a lot right now – political deadlock, protests of the justice system, the de-funding of our education system. Even Texas is drastically reducing AP History courses because they teach history from the perspectives of many countries, as if knowledge of someone else’s experience is harmful or evil. These films are all screaming to get our attention and remind us how valuable curiosity really is, that knowledge and broader perspective are the silver bullets to so many of our current woes.

There’s a character in The Maze Runner named Gally. He hangs back when others search to escape the maze. He knows the maze is a trap designed to keep him there, but he feels safe. He calls the trap “home.” Staying downtrodden keeps him in comfort without any risk. I worry at a time like this how many perspectives Gally reflects in the real world.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does The Maze Runner have more than one woman in it?

Yes, barely. It stars Kaya Scodelario as Teresa and Patricia Clarkson as Ava Paige.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Nope.

3. About something other than a man?

Nope.

Can it be forgiven? Like William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, The Maze Runner specifically concerns the interactions of young men isolated from any female presence.

In truth, the movie could easily mix men and women together and it wouldn’t make a jot of difference to the basic plot. It would, however, cast the entire premise in a very different light. Though decisions are never discussed or presented as specifically male, you can’t ignore that certain social constructs in the film are the result of an artificially male environment. Events and conflicts wouldn’t lose their power if Thomas arrived in a mixed gender community, but they would lose their context, and so much of what The Maze Runner has to say relies on that context.

The lack of women in the cast is not something on which I feel one should judge The Maze Runner. It’s a conscious choice that’s far too central to the movie’s premise and themes.

That said, I’d be very curious about a companion piece, following a group of young women trapped in a similar maze. The similarities and differences between such films could be compelling. After all, Hollywood’s always looking for spin-offs and franchises.

Maze Runner cap

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