Thursday, January 15, 2015

A Ghoul Versus The Maze Runner

Who wants to watch a movie about teens in a post-apocalyptic dystopian future taken away from their families and placed into a life or death situation where they divide up into factions? No, this isn't Divergent, they're placed into an arena where they face death. No, this isn't the Hunger Games...”

The Maze Runner was one of the most unexpected hits of 2014: it had very little promotion, featured a cast of unknowns, was made from a first time director, had a miniscule budget, and was based on a series of books that didn't necessarily light the young adult world on fire. Despite all of this, it was able to make TEN TIMES its 34 million dollar budget AND earn critical acclaim in the process. That's quite the accomplishment in this day and age, as that's a LOT of barriers to overcome on your way to box office success.

It's based on the first book of the Maze Runner trilogy, written by James Dashner. Once again I have no idea what they're about, as I am so behind in reading it has officially become pathetic. Wes Ball, the films' director, earned the gig on the strength of a CGI film called Ruin he submitted to 20th Century Fox, who was impressed and offered him Maze Runner since it shared a similar premise. This was after Fox's original choice, Catherine Hardwicke of Twilight fame, dropped out to pursue other projects. That's a shame, I REALLY would have loved to see her spin the camera around the maze runners every five minutes in-between takes of everyone walking in pointless slow motion. Ball promised fans he'd be loyal to the books, but honestly who DOESN'T vow that anymore? A quick search of fan reviews online seem to confirm that he kept his promise, but I won't be able to judge that for a very long time. Just wait until I get to the Harry Potter series though, those are going to be some twenty page reviews where I'll nitpick EVERYTHING TO DEATH!

Keep your hand on the same wall the entire time as we get ready to enter a maze and presumably run at some point, because it's now time for A Ghoul Versus The Maze Runner!

We open with a young man waking up in a mesh elevator rising very fast. He seems very confused and disorientated as the elevator rises, finally ending up on the surface SURROUNDED by a large group of other young men. They begin to mock him, so he takes off running through a grass field before things start getting weird. He stops when he realizes they're surrounded on all sides by a large stone wall (save the large entrance to the maze), his shock allowing him to be captured and thrown into a makeshift prison cell. He's soon let out by a kinder man named Alby, who asks if he remembers anything before waking up in the elevator.

The man, whom I'm just going to start calling by his actor's name of Dylan O'Brien, is horrified to realize he doesn't, not even his own name. Alby assures him that's normal and he'll remember it within a couple of days, as names are the one thing “they” let the runners keep. Alby, who is the leader of this rag-tag group, gives Dylan a tour of the area, which they've set up to be a small village called the Glade. They get supplies once a month from the elevator, called the Box, along with a new recruit that they call “greenies”.

Dylan is introduced to Alby's second-in-command Newt, who is probably the most famous of the young cast as he's played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster, better known as the voice of Ferb from the mega-popular cartoon Phineas and Ferb. Dylan asks what's past the walls, but Alby will only respond to never enter the maze. Yeah, because that's ALWAYS an effective answer in a movie when the main character is curious about something forbidden. Dylan is paired with a younger boy named Chunk to get settled in- wait, Chunk or Chuck? Yeah, I'm pretty sure that's Chunk from the Goonies.

Chunk is too busy doing the Truffle Shuffle to notice Dylan slip away to approach the entrance, chasing the greenie down and reiterating how they are NOT allowed to go in there. Cut to two guys sprinting out of the entrance, sadly without the “wah wah waaaah” sound effect. Chunk explains that they're runners and THEY'RE allowed to go into the maze, whereas the rest of the men (called the Gladers) are not. Dylan's all “fuck this!” and starts walking inside when he's knocked down by a guy named Gally. They get in each other's face as the rest of the Gladers gather around them, Alby trying to calm everyone down. Dylan demands to know what's in the maze when he's answered by a monstrous sounding roar from within the walls, which then begin to slide close thanks to a large series of gears.

That night Newt tells Dylan about the runners, led by a guy named Minho, who have been exploring the maze daily for the past three years trying to find a way out. Dylan expresses incredulity that they haven't found anything in all that time, but then learns the maze changes form every night and when the gates open in the morning it's a completely new layout. That's definitely an obstacle, but we see there's a lot of trees in the Glade. Has NO ONE thought to build a ladder to get on top of the maze after all this time?! Also, what's the POINT of exploring the maze daily if it's constantly changing? I suppose to see if an exit appears, but it's still kind of silly. Newt stresses how important it is the runners get back before the doors close, because no one has ever survived a night in the maze. I'm sure THIS won't come up ever again, no sir.

Dylan asks what happens to the runners that get trapped, Newt replying the Grievers get them. No one's lived to see what they look like, but they're definitely out there. Deciding that's enough exposition for one night, Newt introduces Dylan to more of the Glade's residents, leading to Gally challenging him to a sparring match. Dylan holds his own but ultimately gets knocked on his head, which restores part of his memory and he remembers his name is Thomas. Why that didn't even take a full day for him to recall, I think we just found our Chosen One!

Later Thomas has a dream of being examined by a group of ominous looking scientists, including a woman's voice saying “wicked is good”. In the morning he's sent out to the woods to get fertilizer for their crops, where he gets attacked by one of the other runners named Ben. He is acting completely out of his mind and seems feral, screaming at Thomas that “he saw him” and “it's all his fault”. Thomas runs from him back towards the Glade, yelling for help. Newt and the others take Ben down, lifting his shirt up to reveal a ghastly looking wound which Gally explains by saying he's been “stung”. They throw Ben into the cell while Alby elaborates that getting stung leads to “the changing”, which is an infection that'll only get worse.

Everyone's freaked out by this because it means Grievers are now attacking during the day, something they've never done before. Wait, what? The movie has spelled out the runners explore the maze during the day and return at night before the Grievers come out, so how the hell has anyone ever been stung before? It's likely way back when they were first setting up their Lord of the Flies society it happened and they learned from it, but the movie REALLY should be taking a different approach to explain stuff like this better. As it stands right now it's cheating to maintain a sense of mystery and a gradual release of information.

Thomas tells Alby what Ben said to him, which seems to mean something but he won't say what. This is starting to feel like one of those stories where if they explained everything to the main character from the beginning, it'd all go a LOT smoother. We cut to later as the gates are closing for the night, Ben forced inside the maze with a bag of supplies since there's no cure for his condition. It's a rather haunting scene as he begs for his life while the Gladers push him inside with giant poles, Thomas watching the whole thing wide eyed.

Another night another scientist dream, although this one features a pretty young woman giving Thomas words of encouragement. We then get a brief shot of him and the woman lying side by side on tables while the scientists are about to operate on them. Thomas awakes from this just in time to see the runners getting ready for their daily search, Alby now joining them since they are now short one. What's up with that? I was sure Thomas was going to get picked after his impromptu audition of outrunning Ben.

This proves to be a bad decision, as the runners don't return at their scheduled time. The Gladers gather outside of the entrance, which begins to close when Thomas spots Minho dragging an unconscious Alby on his back. Alby's weight is slowing Minho down so Thomas recklessly runs in to help... just in time for the gates to close behind him. Well, shit. That was stupid, because Thomas had a good minute before the gates started closing to run in there. Minho congratulates Thomas on killing himself, getting up to find shelter. Thomas insists they take Alby along, despite learning he's been stung. They find an alcove in the maze to hole up in, Thomas cooking up an idea to use some nearby vines to hang Alby up on a wall out of harm's way. This entire scene doesn't make any sense logistically, but whatever.

Minho reluctantly agrees to help, but then spots a sinister looking creature off in the distance and runs away. Thomas hides in the vines as the Griever rumbles past, the camera hiding most of it from our view but letting us see it has mechanical, spider-like legs. Thinking he's safe, Thomas emerges from his cover only to find the Griever perched above him for a sweet reveal shot. It's a biomechanical spider in nature, looking like something out of Gears of War. One VERY thrilling chase scene later, Thomas runs into Minho, who leads him down a section where the maze is beginning to close. Thomas slows down to lure the Griever into the closing hallway, squishing it like the bug it is.

The next morning the Gladers are gathered around the gate, which slowly opens to reveal our three prisoners alive, although not well in Alby's case. Chunk asks if they saw a Griever, Minho telling them how Thomas killed it. I think it's safe to say someone is now “DA MAN” around the Glade. Or not, because at an impromptu meeting Gally calls for Thomas to be punished for breaking the rules and running into the maze. He also fears retaliation from the Grievers, saying they've co-existed with them just fine for three years. I'm not sure I'd call fatally injecting your people with the rage virus co-existing there, Mr. Gally.

Minho disagrees, wanting to make Thomas a runner. This leads to a funny scene where Chunk tries to get a “Thomas” chant going, but no one else joins in so he just shuts up. Everyone's arguing is cut short by the tone signaling the arrival of the Box, which is arriving way earlier than it should since it's only been a few days. This time the box contains no supplies, just a new unconscious greenie in the form of the woman from Thomas' dream. That raises a good question, how come only men are put into the Box? The woman has a note clutched in her hand that says “She's the last one EVER”. She briefly wakes up to shout Thomas' name before passing back out, which isn't melodramatic AT ALL.

Thomas doesn't want to wait for her to wake back up, instead deciding to go back into the maze to examine the Griever he crushed. Minho accompanies him along with three other Gladers, whom I'm sure will ALL make it back okay, especially since none of them have been given names. Hey, why are they all wearing red shirts? They soon find the dead Griever, Minho searching its remains to find a beeping metal canister instead them with the letters “WCKD” stamped on it. These letters were also seen for a quick shot on the supplies that made the trip with Thomas in the Box. They all make it out just fine, the second time this film's subverted my expectations. Weird!

The Gladers puzzle over the canister but can't make anything of it. Gally continues his quest to have Thomas punished for breaking the rules, which Newt agrees to and sentences him to one night in the Pit with no food. Newt says non-runners can't keep going into the maze, so makes Thomas a runner so he'll no longer break that particular rule. SUCK IT GALLY! Minho takes Thomas to the runner base where he shows him a small scale model they've built of the maze, concluding that they've explored every square inch of it and there's NO way out. Alby wanted this kept a secret from the Gladers so they wouldn't lose hope and resign themselves to their fate.

This bout of bad news is interrupted by some Gladers, who tell them the woman is awake. Thomas goes to see her, discovering she remembers her name (Theresa), but nothing else. She's been having the same dreams as Thomas, but doesn't know why she knows his name. Theresa shows him two syringes filled with a blue liquid she found in her pocket, stamped with the WCKD letters. They decide to inject Alby with one of them, because what have they got to lose? Thomas doesn't get to stick around to see if it helps because Gally shows up to lock him in the Pit for his punishment, and then the next morning Minho lets him out to get to a runnin'.

The maze is divided into eight numbered sections so they head to the seventh one, which corresponds to a number on the Griever's canister. The canister begins to make a clicking sound when they arrive, Thomas guessing it's now acting as a homing beacon. They begin to walk in the direction where it clicks faster, following it to a wall that slides open when they draw close. Inside is a long round tunnel, that emits a laser beam that scans over them. A loud siren blares and the section of the maze starts to close, the two running for their lives before they get trapped. They return to the Glade with news they might have found a possible exit, in turn getting the news that the injection worked and Alby is now awake.

Alby is not in a good mood though, as he's gotten his memory back. He makes some cryptic comments about how “they” won't let the Gladers leave and that Thomas was always their favourite, but before Thomas can question him everyone hears a commotion outside the medical tent. For the first time ever the entrance hasn't closed, and now multiple entrances are opening up all over the Glade. AND HERE COME THE GRIEVERS! The monsters begin to pick off everyone in sight, but fortunately it's just no name characters so no big loss there. Oh, spoke too soon! One of the Grievers grabs Alby, losing its stinger in the process. After the assault is over, Thomas decides he needs his memory back so injects himself with the toxin. One scientist dream later Thomas realizes he and Theresa were PART of WCKD, which captured the kids and put them in the maze as a test... which we already knew thanks to the flashbacks. Shocking revelation is not shocking.

He doesn't get a chance to do anything with this information, as during the time he was unconscious Gally took over the Gladers and has sentenced him and Theresa to death. Newt, Minho, Chunk, and a guy named Frypan help them escape, joined by about half a dozen other Gladers to enter the maze and hopefully find a way out. The entrance to section seven is now guarded by several Grievers, the group attacking them while Chunk uses the canister to activate the sliding door. One battle later they enter the tunnel... to find themselves in a long brightly lit hallway. They cautiously walk along it to find a door marked with a large exit sign, which causes Frypan to ask “Seriously?!”. HA!

Thomas opens the door to find the science room from his dreams, only with the twist of the scientists now dead from numerous bullet holes. Thomas finds a keypad that he presses, which triggers a holographic recording of a woman that introduces herself as Dr. Ava Paige of the World Catastrophe Killzone Department. She's the one true big name veteran actor in this film, because as I've mentioned before, you've always got to have at least one in these movies. She's played by Patricia Clarkson, best known for her roles in films such as the Green Mile, Shutter Island, and Pieces of April. Dr. Paige proceeds to give us... maybe not the mother of, but the daughter of all infodumps so I'll bullet point it:
  • The sun went berserk and scorched the earth, causing a global catastrophe and killing billions
  • The universe wasn't done fucking with the human race though, introducing a virus called the Flare that turned everyone into deadly rage-o-holics
  • WCKD discovered the latest generation was immune to the virus, kidnapping them and placing them in the maze to study the cause of their resistance so they could create a cure. ...which they did, right? The blue liquid that CURED Alby? Although maybe it only works on the current generation and not older folk... but then if the Gladers are immune to it how come they undergo the changing when exposed to it? I'm not sure immune was the right word to us here.
  • Not everyone agrees with WCKD's methods, which is illustrated by soldiers in the background of her recording breaking into the place and shooting everyone in a labcoat
At the end of her recording Paige warns their trials have only begun, then casually pulls out a gun and shoots herself in the head before the soldiers can get here. Her last words are the arc words of the series: “Wicked is good”. Everyone looks at each other, speechless as what to do. An exit door slides open near them and they begin to walk towards it when Gally appears, the canister in one hand and a gun in the other. Okay, WHAT THE FUCK. Gally, whom the entire movie has reinforced time and time again was perfectly content with life in the Glade and never wanted to enter the maze, entered the maze? And how the fuck did he know where to go or how to use the canister to open the door?!

To top it off, he has a giant sting-wound on his neck so you just KNOW he's going to be reasonable about this. Thomas tries to talk him down but Gally pulls the trigger, just as Minho throws a FUCKING SPEAR THROUGH HIS HEART! DAYMN! Gally crumples to the ground, sadly not uttering the words “A... spear?” as he dies. We're far from a happy ending though, as Chunk was on the other end of the spent bullet. He dies in Thomas' arms, who begins to sob wholeheartedly at the loss of his friend in a very touching scene.

Keeping in the movie's theme of not letting anyone have time to process anything, the soldiers from the recording rush through the door and grab everyone, dragging an inconsolable Thomas away from Chunk's body. The Gladers are brought outside, which is a desert as far as the eye can see, and loaded on a helicopter. The chopper flies away, the camera showing us the maze was part of WCKD's gigantic Test Site A. Oh, we're not done just yet as things transition to a highly polished room full of distinguished looking people. Dr. Paige, wiping bloody makeup off the side of her head, walks up to them and announces the Maze Trials were a complete success and the Gladers have taken the bait.  Time for phase two!

Cue the credits.

Polarizing ending alert! On one hand you got a genuinely shocking twist that you didn't see coming, on the other hand it basically resolved NOTHING in the film. You spent two hours watching a mystery that ends with you back at square one. But, seeing as how this is part of a series I don't mind that since it sets up the next movie and I was entertained the entire time. It helps Dylan O'Brien was charismatic and made you care about what was going on as he tried to unlock the secrets of the maze.

Wes Ball is definitely a student of the Christopher Nolan School of Lightning Fast Pacing, as he kept this movie running VERY quickly to keep your attention on what was happening and not giving you any time to think about any of it. This helps cover a lot of the film's total gaps in logic, especially the ending when Gally magically teleports into the lab. Rewatching this definitely exposes a lot of them, however I can't get too mad about it because this never felt like a cynical money grab to cash in on our precious box office dollars. I was given the impression the filmmakers were trying their hardest to deliver a quality product, which is impressive when you consider how low the budget for this movie was.

This is the second straight young adult movie I'd recommend, it doesn't quite hit the emotional connection that Divergent did but manages to do alright for itself. I very much want to see the upcoming sequel, the Scorch Trials now, as I've insanely curious to see how they follow this up now that the cat is out of the bag about WCKD's intentions. Fingers crossed they don't succumb to sequelitis and give us the exact same story with the exact same ending, since we as an audience now know everything the Gladers are going through is fake.