Part (one) of the problem – The Maze Runner (2014) Review

The Maze Runne PosterPerhaps the most unsurprising aspect of The Maze Runner – the latest member of the ever-growing club of Young Adult dystopian sci-fi – is that it is the first part in a trilogy, tasked with introducing us to its bleak world and investing us in its characters for the sequels that will inevitably be greenlit. By its very nature it must include set-up, but should it be allowed to get away with being entirely that? All preamble and no pay-off? Should it rather be self-contained, able to stand apart on its own without the help of its future episodic brothers? In a mess of absent exposition and unanswered questions, the films response is ironically very clear.

We are elevated into the Glade – a luscious forest and field area – along with our hero Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and a healthy dose of amnesia. In this area we meet a group of teenage boys, all of whom have entered in a similar way to Thomas, now eking out an existence in a well established mini-society. Questions abound like sparks but it’s here where the film shows its odd approach to pacing. For a community so rooted in co-operation, the boys are remarkably reticent about explaining things to their new compatriot, sometimes even refusing to answer queries like it’s an insult to even be asked by an amnesiac newbie. Clearly some exposition is needed, but it’s spread out thinly along the runtime that all conversations become laden with it, never allowing time for the characters to develop or the viewer to care about them.

The Maze Runner, 2014

And it’s a shame that it’s all exposition when there’s so much talent in the young cast list. On the whole their performances are good but seem to be held back by weak scripting. Aml Ameen gives a sage performance as the longest-serving Glader and his careworn Alby is perhaps the most compelling. Will Poulter plays the closest to an antagonist, zealous to protect and restore the status quo after Thomas disturbs it, but his motives are flimsy which never gives his stay-at-home attitude any weight. Likewise Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Blake Cooper are solid but sadly one-dimensional. The greatest waste is Kaya Scodelario, who appears late in the game as a connection to Thomas’ previous life but criminally nothing more. She’s likely here to foreshadow a greater role in sequels but comes off as the token female, given very little to do at all. The less said about the bland Dylan O’Brien the better, his clichéd amnesia robbing him of almost all interest.

Whilst little care has been given to its characters, the excellence of The Mazer Runner lies in its production design. The eponymous maze is brilliantly imposing, so gargantuan that it literally casts a large shadow over our protagonists. The maze is also old but of unknown age, its cracks and overgrown areas lending it a monolithic quality as if it has stood for centuries. Its constant presence lends the world a wonderful tactility and entices you to ponder on the nature of the world beyond the maze, and just who or what might be in charge of this diabolical lab-rat stunt. This is clearly the direction The Maze Runner is going in, namely the next instalment territory, but it does so with such determination that it completely forgets to have a satisfying ending. It completely forgets to be its own film. It’s perfectly fine to have ambiguity in a story, but when your finale feels entirely like the introduction to the sequel, and there is no ending, you’re doing something wrong. The Hunger Games does it right, so why can’t you?

I’ve got high hopes for the The Maze Runner: Part Deux, where I have no doubt things will start to make sense, but I rather wish someone had just given me the heavily edited highlights from part one.

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Cruising for a Bruising – Edge of Tomorrow (2014) Review

Edge of Tomorrow Poster

Tom Cruise is well known for playing heroes, the kind that are unphased by the desperate circumstances they find themselves in and who always walk away from explosions. It’s all just steely expressions and thrilling antics. I have enjoyed much of his acting in the past (“show me the money” anyone?) but recently it appears that he’s been doing the same action role over and over – Jack in Oblivion, Jack in Jack Reacher etc. It doesn’t help that his physical appearance remains the same from film to film, and I felt like I was watching Tom Cruise and not his character. Whomever he was meant to be was dwarfed by his enormous celebrity presence. All this left me jaded and when I saw his casting in Edge of Tomorrow, I didn’t hold out much hope for his acting talents to resurface. It is however, pleasantly enjoyable to be wrong on this one.

Edge of Tomorrow is based on the novel entitled All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka and the set-up is as follows. In the near future, the forces of humanity are in a desperate struggle to repel an alien invasion of Earth. Major William Cage (Cruise) is part of the military but works only in public affairs, being a self-confessed coward. He is summoned by General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) and is stripped of his rank and placed in the front lines of the next big attack – which is likely to be humanity’s last. Through circumstances that I won’t spoil he ends up repeating the same day every time he is killed and with the help of Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) must find a way out and a way to win the war. The elements of the story can feel quite familiar when viewed individually – the near future, alien invasion, mech battle-suits, and the time looping – but it is the combination of these that make Edge of Tomorrow into a fun slice of sci-fi action.

The concept of time looping is not new and many people have likened to Groundhog Day, which has given rise to many witty alternative titles e.g. Saving Private Groundhog or Groundhog D-Day. Wish I could take credit for those. Whilst the comparison is almost inevitable, I was pleased to see that there were no karmic elements, and the reasons for Cage being trapped in the loop are instead tied to the greater plot of the invasion. Despite this, predictability does threaten to rear its ugly head towards the climax of the plot but it manages to avoid straying into genre clichés.

Edge of Tomorrow Blunt Cruise

“I’ll be blunt, this won’t be anything like a pleasure cruise”.

In the overall grimness of the threat of human extinction, it’s impressive that the film-makers manage to include plenty of levity revolving around Cruise’s quivering yellow-belly, and I’m taking quite a few laugh-out-loud moments. It’s great to see a stalwart of action cinema bumble along like a fish-out-of-water and Cruise does this superbly. It’s not only these light touches to the character and his predicament that make Cruise’s performance quite possibly one of his best in a while. He brings a certain pathos to his hapless everyman, caught in a situation that couldn’t be more opposed to his instinctive self-preservation and you understand the struggles he goes through, be they with the battle itself or the growing relationships with the soldiers around him. Emily Blunt is also terrific, as is to be expected of one of the finest actresses currently working, and similar to Cruise as a coward it’s a joy to see her getting tough as a battle-scarred veteran.

There are a few more things that deserve a mention. Doug Liman’s direction is very assured and the way he handles the balance of action and drama is to be applauded, although I shouldn’t be too surprised at that, he did direct The Bourne Identity after all. It may not be to everyone’s tastes but I thought the design of the world was suitably sci-fi, in particular the mech-suits which are industrial and flat out awesome. Slightly at odds with the whole mechanized look is Rita’s weapon of choice – an unfeasibly large sword – but let’s just call that a nod to Japanese gaming and move on.

In a summer filled with sequels, it’s always exciting to see a film that amalgamates some ideas into a fresh viewing experience. You may have seen these elements before, but together with Cruise and Blunt leading the charge, they certainly have the edge over their cinematic opposition.