The Maze Runner

Film review: The Maze Runner

WARNING: There will, as usual, be spoilers involved.

My peak cinema season kicked off with a trip to see The Maze Runner, which I had much anticipated (especially as the release date had been postponed from Valentine’s Day ’14). Don’t judge me, but I actually took a notebook and pen with me to the cinema, so that I could record my reactions there and then, as the story unfolded and Dylan O’Brien’s charm radiated from the screen. Although it was (obviously) dark, and I couldn’t see what I was writing, I found it to be a useful experience, and I think I’ll do it in the future.

Let me first talk about the opening scene. For the first few seconds, we are left in darkness, and the black screen allows for sound alone to set the scene. You can hear all these clanging, mechanical noises, and then suddenly, Thomas, our protagonist, comes into view. As the lift rattles and rises in the shaft, the tempo increases, and you can actually feel his fear of the unknown. Even in those first few seconds, we get a sense of danger, and the not-too-subtle ‘WCKD’ stamp on a crate hints at what is yet to be discovered about Thomas’ situation.

Characters

  • Thomas was by far the most interesting character to observe. I liked his reaction of pure bewilderment as he first entered the Glade, how he questioned the rules, and how he let his moral judgment override the expectations set in place for him. I believed in Thomas – he gave us all hope – and he just so happened to be played by a gorgeous actor who nailed the role.
  • Minho (pronounced ‘Meen-ho’ in the film – don’t you hate it when names sound different in your head?!) wasn’t introduced near the beginning, even though he is a key character in the story. In the scene where Gally challenges Thomas to a fight, you can see Minho’s face burning with silent rage – the intensity in his eyes. It becomes obvious that he is a deep thinker and uses his experience in the Glade/maze to make wise decisions. Also, he is well respected among the Gladers, and doesn’t appreciate Thomas’ risky behaviour – “You don’t get it: we’re already dead.”
  • Gally was perfectly portrayed as the stocky, brutish bully by Will Poulter. What struck me was the way he was obsessed with keeping to the rules and his refusal to accept change. As soon as Thomas stepped on the scene, he knew things would be different, and I believe that he feared losing the attention and power he had earned from the Gladers. His strength and commitment to the community’s wellbeing was admirable, but his need to belong became increasingly more desperate throughout the film, creating tension in the Glade.
  • Newt was a cool character to see presented on film. He could be seen nonchalantly leaning against wooden posts or casually explaining the ground rules to Thomas. He was the kind of guy I would have wanted to become friends with – friendly but edgy and shrewd. Thomas Brodie-Sangster was the actor: lanky, dirty blonde hair, and smug smile to complete the look.
  • Alby didn’t do much for me. Although it became clear that he was the most respected Glader who led the community, he wasn’t the strongest character, or one that made an impact on me; I didn’t feel particularly sad when he died, and I felt that life in the Glade could continue without him.
  • Chuck was absolutely adorable! I just wanted to pinch his chubby cheeks and give him a huge hug! He was very well cast, and really brought out the true essence of the character.
  • Winston was a character that I could not remember from the book. Therefore, I was surprised by the amount of dialogue he was given, despite not being a main character.
  • One character I do remember from the book is Frypan, but I don’t recall his appearance the film. His name was etched into the wall with the rest of the Gladers’, but his name was never used in dialogue, and I was a bit upset that he wasn’t part of the main cast.
  • Onto the women… Teresa was simply awful. Kaya Scodelario’s performance ruined the film for me, in a way. I know that a few other cast members were British, but her American accent was the least consistent and the least convincing. Teresa is supposed to be special, but she ended up blending in with the rest of the Gladers almost immediately, and accepting her situation without much debate. Overall, I was not impressed, and expected more from the character.
  • Ava Paige wasn’t bad… I just wanted to say that she looked and acted exactly like Kate Winslet as Jeanine Matthews in Divergent, and Meryl Streep as the Chief Elder in The Giver. The hair and white dress, as well as posture and speech control was mostly the same, so she didn’t leave much of an impression on me.
  • The Grievers weren’t what I expected at all. Everyone’s interpretations are different, but somehow I expected a slug-like beast with mechanical saws, spears and pincers poking out of its body. Instead, we saw giant robotic spiders with gooey heads and a claw at the end of a scorpion-style tail. For me, what ruined the effect was their movement. They scuttled along too fast, as if they weren’t even touching the ground, so they looked a bit ridiculous in places. I know it’s fictional anyway, so that shouldn’t matter, but to me, aesthetics always matter!
  • In general, the characters were convincing Gladers who seemed to know their place. Sometimes their actions (particularly those who had no dialogue) seemed contrived, but mostly you could tell they had Glader instincts; eg. at one point in the maze, Winston is afraid the trapped Griever will suddenly lash out, so his hand instinctively goes to his knife in his belt.

Cinematography

  • Light: When Thomas was in the lift, it was dark, but when he was let out, the brightness was overwhelming – his escape brought relief and a sense of safety. However, when the Gladers were dragged out of the WICKED building, the natural light of the scorched desert landscape caused something like the opposite of hope – the fear of reality. I thought that these examples of contrast in light helped to intensify the characters’ emotions and circumstances. The use of fire in the evening was a simple yet effective way of creating atmosphere in the Glade. Candle lighting cast a mysterious, warm glow onto the faces of the Gladers, whereas the bonfire sparked a dynamic energy among them.
  • Colour: I loved the warm, earthy tones of the images in the film. The brown, beige, cream and pale blue clothing worn by the Gladers blended in well with their environment, and the brown hues added to the raw, almost rustic feel of that setting. The maze itself had a different feel altogether, with its silvery grey walls, dark green ivy and red stencilled numbers. The cold colours here made the space seem more confined, and presented a dark, damp, metallic labyrinth. Another other complete contrast was the desert outside the maze, which was a bright, golden colour. I thought that this over-baked panorama perfectly represented the ruined land caused by the Flare.
  • Shots: Overall, the film was visually stunning. Yet instead of making it look too Hollywood-esque (like in The Book Thief, where you wouldn’t believe there was actually a war going on) the filmmakers managed to keep an authentic feel to the settings, whilst using impressive shots to tell the story from a futuristic point of view. I liked the way the focus would shift from background to foreground, often to sharpen the image quality for a character’s emotion in a close-up and to blur the candlelit backdrop. The focus shifting also lent itself to switching between dialogue between two characters standing near each other. Whilst in the maze, the camera would sometimes show the open sky, then pan down to the claustrophobic space between the walls, and down to the Runners. This smooth action gave us a sense of location and time of day whilst the Runners were below, before we saw them in action, and it was very effective, in my opinion. One other aspect that I liked was the hand-held camera work as the Gladers were running through the crop fields. There was just enough shaky footage to get a sense of urgency and panic, without over-doing it to the point of making you feel uneasy (like in The Hunger Games, for example).

Sound

Sound is definitely not my forte, but I shall attempt to describe my thoughts… Firstly, Alby’s voice was unclear, and often I could just hear a faint whispering coming from the general direction of where he stood. Strangely enough, the voices of other characters seemed to be projected behind us in the audience, no matter where they were on screen. The sound effects were good because they set the scene of a tropical jungle landscape for the Glade, and the mechanical noises complemented the metallic maze. Perhaps the stereotypical tribal noises were a bit over-the-top, though. I also felt that the musical score itself didn’t go very well with the on-screen action. It seemed like a very generic action movie soundtrack, as if anyone could have bought it from a loyalty-free website to layer behind a home-made video for YouTube. In terms of tempo, the music’s increased with the pace of the visuals, but it was nothing that enhanced the experience, and sometimes the sound seemed to clash with the images because attention to detail was overlooked. To put it more simply: it wasn’t exactly Pirates of the Caribbean.

Comparing the film to the book

Although I must have read the book at least 4 years ago, there are still parts that have stuck with me over time. I can’t think of many obvious details that were missed out about the world of the Gladers (except for Thomas and Teresa’s telepathy and the WICKED beetles with cameras), which is a good sign. There was the same idea that you were learning about Thomas’ situation as he was, because his memory had been erased. Everyone starts off from the same point, without prior knowledge, so the storytelling is very important in the film. I’m pleased that the Gladers’ vocabulary was kept in the dialogue. I remember hearing ‘shank’, ‘greenie’, ‘klunked’ and ‘shuck’ (although I wish ‘shuck-faced shank’ could have been used too). I thought that Chuck died before the Gladers broke through to the WICKED HQ, so I was so happy that he lived through that episode. However, I was utterly mortified when he was killed later on. This had a bigger impact on me because I wasn’t expecting his death at that point (my memory must have been wrong, or they could have changed the ending). It was emotional for the audience as well as the characters who had grown so attached to Chuck. In the book series, ‘bergs’ – flying ships – were described as the transportation used, yet in the film, somehow all of the surviving Gladers could squeeze into a small helicopter. Will bergs be used in The Scorch Trials or will helicopters be the standard mode throughout the series of films? Finally, I think that the ending was altered in the film. I recall that in the book, the Gladers just about broke into the HQ, were met by some staff, and the rest was left ambiguous so that questions could be answered in The Scorch Trials. I personally think that the film could have ended with a shot of the white light at the end of the tunnel, rather than spending a few extra precious minutes explaining the Trials and taking the characters out of the HQ. I can see why it ended the way it did, but my idea could have been equally as effective, in my opinion. To conclude, the themes of the book (for example, team building, determination and a sense of community) were illustrated very well in the film, and I doubt that James Dashner could have been disappointed with the way in which his imagination was transformed into another medium of reality.

Questions left unanswered in the film

  • Who were the men clad in black at the end, ushering the Gladers out of the HQ? What was their role and who did they work for?
  • Who was the man in the helicopter?
  • How did the Gladers conceptualise time? One character said, “Meet me in the woods in half an hour,” but none of them wore watches, so how would they have a clue about time?
  • How could the Gladers leave with no food or supplies? The maze was huge and they didn’t know how long they’d be in there for. What if they needed medical equipment etc? Were they so confident that they could find a way out so quickly?
  • Why did Ava Paige feign her death? 

Question for my readers: Have you seen The Maze Runner? If so, do you agree with my ideas and interpretations, or did you have a completely different experience at the cinema? Let me know in the comments below!

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Under The Skin

Film Review: Under The Skin

It’s weird because I don’t have a lot to say about this film. I’m still trying to figure out whether I liked it or not. I don’t know if it’s the kind of film you’re supposed to enjoy, or simply appreciate.

 Sound:

Under The Skin is an arty film, that’s for sure; stylistically, there are plenty of valuable attributes. A key element is silence. There is hardly any dialogue at all, and what we do hear are the vague mumbles from Glaswegians passing by, and the seductive undertones of the alien’s humanoid voice.

The rest of the background noise is from the alien’s surroundings as she explores Glasgow: the laughter and chatter of the people, the crashing waves against the shore, the hooting vehicles on the crowded roads… When I came home from the cinema, I noticed how alone I was, and every sound I created made me feel like I was in my own silent film. I suddenly became very aware of my actions, and although it gave me a sense of peace and perhaps mindfulness, I could only think back to the disturbing film I had just watched.

The music is minimal, but makes a big impact on the atmosphere conveyed. I only picked up on two pieces of music. One consists of a steady gong-like pattern, which is used when the alien lures naked men into her black, viscous void. It mirrors the slow, even paces of the characters, and yet your heartbeat can’t help but exceed the tempo as you anticipate the victims’ fate. The second piece of music is composed of scratchy violin sounds. The high-pitched, short, sharp sounds have the effect of your spine tingling and your head spinning simultaneously. So, so creepy.

 Light:

The contrast of light and darkness is evidently an extremely important component of this film.

  • Right at the start, you are left to watch a blinding white pinpoint of light race towards you through a black vacuum, accompanied by the ‘scratchy violin music’.
  • The second scene involves the alien undressing a dead woman and taking the clothes for herself. This takes place in an illuminated, endless-looking white space, and the two women are just black silhouettes against the backdrop.
  • The ‘viscous void’ I refer to is inky black and ominous, framed by a black studio-like room. Light is only shone on the naked bodies, to separate them from their surroundings, and it is unclear where the light is coming from.
  • Most of the film is set in dark places. The brightest parts are at the beginning, in the scene mentioned above, and at the end, when there is snow falling from a milky sky. This brings about a sense of wonder, in my opinion.
  • The alien’s eyes are dark. There is some fixation on her eyes, and I couldn’t quite work out what the meaning of it was. I just know that the darkness of the pupils has some relevance and symbolism that shouldn’t be ignored.

 Horror:

This is not some typical sci-fi film where an alien race invades Earth and tries to take over the planet. This is about one alien’s (ambiguous) mission, and it is very profound. I have to describe the intense moments, not because I want to give away spoilers but because I just can’t get these moments out of my head. They are more than unsettling images. It’s not to do with nudity or stranger danger; it’s the Under The Skin part!

I can’t tell you how much the body deflation under the ‘viscous void’ freaked me out. Watching the men’s bodies shrivel up into thin, hollow, latex sacks was enough to make me feel sick. When the insides of the bodies were churned down some kind of sewage shoot, with the ‘scratchy violin music’ dubbed over it, I couldn’t help but squirm in my seat. I had to hold in my tummy to make sure that everything stayed where it was (it’s a psychological thing that I fear bodily harm from fiction could occur to me at any given moment).

The other instance I want to talk about was the final scene. So the alien is being raped; the man is disgusted by her and flees; she stands up to reveal black patches on her back; she kneels down and peels off her head, as well as at least half of her abdomen; she exposes the black, anorexic creature that she is inside Scarlett Johansson’s skin and holds her human head in her hands; the man comes back and pours paraffin over her before setting her alight; she runs helplessly out of the forest and into a snowy field, and is left to burn; fire consumes her and a thick, black smoke rises into the pure white sky; and that’s how the film ends. I mean, firstly: WHAT?! What did I just watch? The alien is left to burn into an inter-galactic ash. I don’t understand the director’s message here. Are we supposed to learn something about consequences of interfering with others’ lives, maybe, or about how some tasks are just impossible? Someone help me out here, because I’m really dumb-founded.

 ***

I am completely weirded out by this film and do not necessarily recommend it, however artistic and intense it is. My friend and I can’t stop thinking about Under The Skin, and it leaves a very uneasy feeling in my gut. To be honest, I watched the trailer and did some research beforehand, and I knew just as much going into the film as I did when I came out afterwards.