I went in excited to see The Maze Runner. I haven’t read the books, but they sound cool. Mazes have fascinated me since I was a kid, and this seemed like a rich opportunity to explore their mystery and adventure.
The movie is a good time, for the most part. I don’t watch Teen Wolf and am not familiar with teen heartthrob Dylan O’Brien, but he makes a solid leading man. It’s also nice to see Thomas Brodie-Sangster who nerds know as Jojen Reed from Game of Thrones; he brings real acting chops and credibility to the film. The maze itself is an awesome visual achievement. You really feel its massive scale and power. It seems entirely real, from its cracked and dirty concrete to the vines that have overgrown it. And its terrifyingly rendered denizens are clattering nightmares you won’t soon forget.
Unfortunately, the film is guilty of two major sins: exposition and withholding. As an adaptation, I can almost forgive the first. The movie has to convey a lot of information to the audience or nothing will make sense. But it’s too often done in marathon question and answer sessions, where the amnesiac main character gets stuck tediously interviewing people to find out what’s going on around him. As hungry as we are to learn about this mysterious world, it’s hard not to squirm in your seat during these monster data downloads.
I have a much harder time forgiving the film’s need to withhold information from the audience. It makes for an extremely frustrating viewing experience. I won’t give anything away that’s not obvious from the trailers, I promise, but the film contains some major mysteries that we’re dying for answers to. When the characters on screen actually start to figure things out (or regain their own memories and knowledge), they still don’t tell us what the hell is going on! In one instance, one character blurts that it doesn’t matter. Wrong! It matters to me! Later, when we are finally given what should be real answers, they’re vague and don’t ring true. It’s maddening.
Let’s talk about dramatic irony for a minute. As most writing students know, it occurs when the audience knows something the characters in the story don’t. It creates tension and can work very effectively. We know there’s a monster hiding in the closet as the main character reaches for the doorknob, and we’re climbing backwards out of our chairs in anticipation. Cool stuff. And then there’s the opposite of dramatic irony, let’s call it reverse dramatic irony, where the characters know more than the audience. This can work well in the case of a first person narrative, especially one involving an unreliable narrator. When it doesn’t work, it feels like the story’s creators are fucking with the audience by intentionally withholding. It creates the wrong kind of tension: tension between the audience and the movie. It sucks. This is the main problem with The Maze Runner.
In Robert Rodriguez’s fascinating interview with Quentin Tarantino on El Rey’s exceptional The Director’s Chair, Tarantino talks about toying with the audience:
Tarantino considers himself an audience member. He’s one of us. He knows what our expectations are, and he subverts them. He gives us something fresh and better than what we expect when he makes his “left turn.” He still delivers. He doesn’t withhold.
I recently read Red Rising by Pierce Brown, and I couldn’t put it down. It’s a master class in setting up compelling questions and then providing satisfying answers that also create new questions. By continually deepening the story’s mysteries and shifting the paradigm, Brown creates a powerfully addictive read. And he doesn’t withhold.
It is unfortunate The Maze Runner does. It could have been a truly great experience, perhaps one of my favorite movies of the year. I still like it, sure. It’s well-made and lots of fun, but I wish it didn’t make me so angry.
Of course, now I must read the books. I need some damn answers!