The Maze Runner Kills Many Children, But No Formulas
Every couple of days or so, some film critic – jacked up on iced chai lattes and two useless twitter facts – decides to write up an article on “the DEATH” or “the rebirth!” of YA [That’s “young adult” fiction, for you rubes. -Ed]. Last Friday, it was Forbes, who noted the genre’s middling box office returns (The Mortal Instruments came in at high poverty levels of $90 million), and this weekend it was The NY Times, who published “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture,” a liberal arts college thesis masquerading as actual journalism. The truth, as truth tends to be, is way more boring. The Maze Runner, YA’s latest dystopian adventure, is neither the death of YA nor the birth of YA nor the rebirth of YA: just a mediocre book turned into a mediocre movie that somehow managed to make $32.5 million opening weekend alone. From The Maze Runner to The Hunger Games to The Fault In Our Stars, one thing is for sure: Americans like to watch their teenagers die.
While The Hunger Games and Divergent both showcase ‘strong’ female protagonists (ironic quotes obviously intended for Woodley), The Maze Runner features an exclusively male cast in the most platonic gay porn ever imagined by man. Think: muscular teenage boys in muddy brown khakis tending the fields, fighting big spiders, sleeping by the fire. Over the course of five years, they’ve all been completely celibate, despite the fact that they’re all hot + sixteen + hi locked in a prison. They’re loyal teenagers, and good ones, quite the opposite of everyone in Lord of the Flies and all teenagers in real life.
At the heart of The Maze Runner is Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), the story’s lead hero and the all-time king of basic bros. Thomas wakes up to discover that he’s locked in a cage, with no memories of his name and past, imprisoned in a colony of teenage boys all suffering from the same plight. The colony is surrounded by a dangerous maze that only the most adventurous of boys – the “runners” – are allowed to explore. Thomas wants to be a runner/find a way out, but his community resists. It’s actually a pretty intriguing premise that still manages to provoke a kind of kneejerk suspense for the duration of the story. While I wasn’t exactly gripping my seat (Big spiders! Crashes of thunder! Crappy sound design!), I chose to gather all my strength and not take a nap in the bathroom – an act of heroism, and my chosen method of resistance for all standard YA fare.
There are some great examples of YA filmmaking in the past year – Hunger Games, and you know, the other one– but The Maze Runner isn’t one of them. It isn’t just that the story is tired, it’s that the central emotional crisis feels dated, pulled out of a dusty snotty library copy of some 1950’s sci-fi. Without giving too much away, The Maze Runner encourages us to be skeptical about advances in science and technology. Computers are bad, but cooperatively grown tomatoes are great! (Was this book written by lesbians?) It’s a simplistic message, and an anachronistic one, inspired by hackneyed Cold War fears about the postwar industrial age.
So there’s a reason why The Hunger Games resonates with us in a way other YA movies hasn’t: its anxieties are modern, its conflicts adult. Katniss struggles with issues of commitment, class, and family, in ways that feel big and real: “why am I the one to take care of my family?” “Will my community ever do better?” “Which loser boyfriend will I pick?” The script for the Maze Runner, by contrast, addresses issues of: “This maze is big. Can I get out of it?” and: “These spiders are scary. How can we kill them?!? “ Technically authored by Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers, and T.S. Nowlins, The Maze Runner appears to have been ghostwritten by Groot.
It may seem unfair to attack The Maze Runner, given that it’s a smoothly-running story with an Unsolved Mysteries level of thrills (respect). Performances by Aml Ameen, playing Alby, and Blake Cooper, playing a goodhearted fat kid named Chuck (surprise!), are strong. And even though the soundtrack features an unfortunate level of U2 crescendos, there’s momentum. Will Thomas be able to get out of the maze, and will he be able to take other kids with him? The answer is obviously yes, but Director Wes Ball (who has a strong eye for Soviet-style visuals) stacks one obstacle after another that almost makes us question how. We always know that the hero will live, but it’s still fun to watch him struggle.
Most of the time. If you’re going to root for the hero, you have to like him, or at least pretend to be interested in him. The problem I had with The Maze Runner’s Thomas is the same problem I had with Divergent’s Tris and is the same problem I shared with everyone from my high school’s Student Council: they’re all really boring people, pretending to be different. “You’re different,” Newt tells Thomas, “you’re . . . curious” (That’s all it takes?) In Divergent, Tris – who couldn’t look more like a suburban Republican mom – diverges from everyone else, simply by virtue of her blood. And while it’s been a number of years, I can still remember a particularly painful Student Council election where one of the candidates came on stage half-naked in a unicycle, singing about how “this year would be different – once he was in charge!” I might’ve been a loser, but he was a nightmare, a nightmare who later went on to UPenn. Whether it’s Thomas or Tris or the anonymous guy from my high school (Luke), all of these characters are fundamentally the same: beautiful, boring, nonverbal people who are given unique, flashy, glorified titles, simply by virtue of their safety.
Towards the end of The Maze Runner, Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson), the evil woman at the heart of this story/all stories, reveals to us that the boys’ mission still isn’t over. She literally screams for a sequel that the story doesn’t deserve, a pushy grab for whatever scrappy cash any of us still has left in our wallets. Franchises are franchises, and I can’t blame super rich people for wanting to be even more super rich. But I’d like it if directors and writers had one more iota of respect for a stand-alone story. You can give us a cliffhanger if you give us an ending. You can hand us a Thomas as long as you promise us a Jennifer Lawrence (Kaya Scodelario was awful in this story. Seriously, I’ve seen more personality in a Bounty paper towel). The Maze Runner isn’t the birth or death of YA but rather, its extension. You travel through so many twists and tunnels only to end up exactly where you began.
Heather Dockray is a comedian and storyteller living in Brooklyn, NY. You can see more of Heather’s work at www.heatherdockray.com, follow her on twitter @Wear_a_helmet, and email her at email@example.com if you aren’t from Moveon.org