Wednesday, September 24, 2014

"The Maze Runner": the boys are being tested to see who can carry on; they aren't savages at all

The previews of “The Maze Runner” (Wes Ball) suggested an artificial setup, a confined environment will little opportunity for visual variety.  As the film opens, its protagonist Thomas (23-year-old NYC actor Dylan O’Brien) arrives by crude elevator, his memory erased, and finds himself living in a glade, with a few dozen other young men (varied races) in survivalist mode, surrounded by an outfield wall, maybe a mile square, that periodically opens into a “maze”.  As the film progresses, it explores first the natural “Eden” (with only one female Teresa [Kaya Sodelario], who arrives later), and then the channels of the maze, populated by monsters called “grievers”.  They look like giant spiders (a cross between “Arachnophobia” and “Alien”) that we will find out later are partially computer controlled. The maze innards become more varied (remind one of some scenes late in “Inception”) turning into blades, and then various channels that lead to the nerve center and probably a desolate “on the outside”. 
My own screenplay “Do Ask, Do Tell: Conscripted” bears a certain similarity. The protagonist (me) wakes up “etherized on a table” perhaps (as in T. S. Elliot’s Prufock poem), not knowing where he is (in a hospital, in the afterlife, at bizarre job interview?) but he does remember his entire life until recently, when he was abducted after a particular sequence, which he reconstructs during the movie.  He’s on a spaceship, it turns out, but like here, there is a whole world within it, and maybe an outside world to return to.  The “Mobius tunnel” in my piece becomes the equivalent of the maze.  And as in this movie, the protagonist makes multiple trips through the same area (the tunnel, or parallel railroad) until he figures out what is really going on.
Thomas could reasonably think that this is a kind of prison.  True, the boys have their power structure and rites of passage.  But it quickly becomes apparent that this is not a group of gang members.  The young men seem articulate, probably well-educated.  They’ve implemented a simple system or rules.  Some of them are likeable and show real leadership, such as Newt, the tall, slender blond guy with a British accent (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) who always seems able to get others to negotiate their differences (Donald Trump would hire him).  One of the guys, Gally (Will Poulter) wants to keep the status quo and discourage escape, seeing the place as a permanent home.  He’ll set up the test of innovation and courage for the whole group by opposing it.
At the mid-point of the film, we’re shown a model of the Maze as a few of the kids, designated as “runners” (able to get back before the grievers catch them) have built it from memory. There is even a mathematical code sequence to how the various sections open that turns out to be crucial to solving it.
Eventually, we learn that is indeed a government setup, and that it seems to be a great honor to be chosen for this “test”.  But the world that these kids will go back to is indeed badly broken, as mentor Ava (Patricia Clarkson) explains on the monitor in the nerve center when the kids finally breach it.  In a curious way, the film carries an “Ayn Rand”-like message, much more effectively than the Atlas Shrugged films.  Thomas is the one person most willing to take risks and innovate (with the support of three or four of the other boys); Dylan O’Brien will become popular if he plays this sort of character often.
The official site is here.   The film comes from regular Fox, not Searchlight, although it has the attitude of independent film (based on the novel by James Dashner).   It was shot in Louisiana and Vancouver and seems to have Canadian production.
I saw the film at Regal Ballston last night in one of the smaller auditoriums.  But the film is available in IMAX or RPX in some locations. “Go big or go home.” 3-D would have been effective here, in the maze sequences.
As much as I liked O'Brien's performance, it is all too easy to imagine casting Richard Harmon ("The greatest of all time" -- especially in wind sprints and therefore "maze running") from "The 100", "Continuum", and "Judas Kiss"; few actors have his intensity for a role like the lead in this film. 
Many viewers will compare the movie to “The Lord of the Flies” (MGM, 1990), based on William Golding’s novel, which everyone reads in ninth grade English in high school.  When I worked as a substitute teacher, I remember handing out reading quizzes on the book (like video worksheets on “Hotel Rwanda”).  The pop quizzes and tests tended to be rather detailed.  In this movie, though, the boys don’t disintegrate into anarchy. I guess you could conflate the title with "Blade Runner". 

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