Conventional isn’t always a dirty word. After all, we repeat things for a reason. Food, sex, entertainment: We know what we like, what we respond to, and we recognize that there are conventions governing our pleasure. But at the same time, we recognize that not all romance novels are created equal, even when they follow the same structure and are full of the same emotional triggers. Not all potboilers even reach a simmer. And we’ve seen enough jump scares in horror movies to recognize immediately the ones that are going to give us nightmares and the ones that ultimately fail to convince. As consumers of particular genres, we have become attuned to more nuanced categories of differentiation, micro rather than macro: Yes, of course there’s a murder to be solved, but how creepy is the small town in which it took place? How intense is the climactic car chase? How fast are the zombies?
The models are the same each time, so we’re more readily equipped to notice variances in execution or subtle adjustments to our expectations. After all, we’re now having arguments about which of the recent Spider-Man franchises we prefer. And with The Hunger Games, Divergent, and now The Maze Runner vying for our collective attentions, it’s safe to say that everyone who cares about these things will soon have a favorite YA dystopia. The ingredients are always the same: presiding authoritarian regime, inquisitive or rebellious teenager, and a world seemingly beyond repair without the important intervention of said teenager against said authoritarian regime. Now that that’s out of the way, we can focus on the particulars. And as the latest recipe in this seemingly endless cookbook, The Maze Runner excels in the particulars.
The opening of the film—dispensing with the fits and starts of James Dashner’s novel, the film’s source material—immediately establishes our context and the problems inherent therein: a bunch of teenage boys have been sent in the Box (basically a really loud elevator) up to the Glade (a big, walled-in field) to figure out the Maze (a maze). Wiped of their memories, remembering only their first names, the boys create their own self-sufficient society, everyone fulfilling a particular role in the effort to survive out there in the great unknown. Meanwhile, certain boys are designated as Runners, leaving each day into the Maze when the walls open up and studiously mapping the dangerous terrain in the hope of eventually finding a way out. Enter Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), the latest boy to emerge from the Box: While he might be the most “green” of the Gladers, he’s not content to sit around gardening, blithely following the arbitrary rules of this new society he finds himself in. He’s going to find a way out, at whatever cost, breaking any rule necessary in his pursuit of answers.
The Maze Runner itself, though, gamely follows the rules—and much to its credit. A curious blend of our newly acquired taste for dystopia alongside a healthy sprinkling of Lord of the Flies, the film offers familiar pleasures without prompting the sense of having already been here before. The writing is slick, the action evenly paced; the characters, despite not remembering anything of their lives before the Glade, are well-drawn and differentiated, their friendships movingly rendered. And the claustrophobia of the Glade becomes pure terror when we enter the Maze, and the monsters who live there (which the boys call Grievers) combine the surreality of Guillermo del Toro with the machine-like Mechs of Falling Skies to great, nightmarish effect. A large set piece in which the Grievers invade the Glade is harrowingly well-executed, the camera nimbly navigating the chaos of the scene; the film is at its best when its characters are in motion, whether running from the Grievers or navigating the ever-shifting Maze, the world around them revealed as temporary, unstable, always in flux.
But most of all, the film satisfyingly revels in the horror of not-knowing; neither the audience nor its characters know why the boys are there or what exactly they’re fighting against, but clues abound in well-paced increments, systematically ushering us toward a conclusion that may not actually be what it seems. Sometimes the real horror stays close to home, and as tensions rise and circumstances at the Glade become increasingly dire, two factions emerge among the boys (and one girl, who arrives soon after Thomas, with a mysterious message) as they decide how to move forward toward ultimate freedom. Teenagers fighting teenagers, willingly or not, is also an important ingredient to this particular breed of films. These are worlds where no one is safe, least of all from each other, and ultimately this is a genre concerned with the notion that the next generation must bear the weight of the mistakes of their forebears. The current generation of cultural consumers has inherited more problems in more disparate spheres than any before, and in dystopic fiction—or, rather, fiction of the future, a future which veers more and more toward dystopia every day—they’re made, quite literally, to suffer the effects. The fact that this is now a genre with its own conventions should speak volumes.