As one of the more enjoyable YA adaptations and one that skews male in its appeal, The Maze Runner could be a crossover hit this weekend. To be a part of the crowd, you’ll want to go see the story of Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), a guy who wakes up en route to a mysterious courtyard that will be his new home until he can escape the surrounding labyrinth. And afterward, as you try to figure out all the questions you have about the plot and which might be answered in the sequel (and maybe prequel), you’ll want to go through this week’s list of movies to watch, each of them relevant to Wes Ball’s adaptation of the James Dashner book.
First, though, you should also check out Ball’s previous films, all of them shorts. I shared his Student Academy Award winner, A Work in Progress, the other day. In the past we’ve posted his bigger breakthrough, an action sequence and proof of concept for a feature version of itself titled Ruin. There is a look to the latter that clearly helped the filmmaker (who also did effects work for Mike Mills’s Beginners) get the gig directing The Maze Runner. And maybe the rest of the series? That reminds me, this week’s recommendations come with a spoiler warning for their tie-in. Don’t read about the selections’ relevance until you’ve seen the new movie or you don’t care about spoilers.
Many have called The Maze Runner “a YA Cube,” and that’s definitely a fitting description. The first Cube, co-written and directed Vincenzo Natali (Splice), begins with a guy waking up inside of a maze with no clue how he got there. He meets others there who are similarly clueless about where they are and why. And it’s a kind of test for these people, just like the kids in Ball’s movie. Also worth watching is the 1961 Twilight Zone episode that inspired the movie, “Five Characters in Search of an Exit.”
You can’t have a movie based around a maze without calling to mind Jim Henson’s fantasy film starring a young Jennifer Connelly, a well-packaged David Bowie and a bunch of Muppets. Instead of trying to get out of the center of a labyrinth, Connelly’s character is trying to get to it, and just like in The Maze Runner, she has to deal with an environment that changes shape as she’s trying to figure it out. If there’s one thing the new YA adaptation is missing, it’s an equivalent of this movie’s bog of eternal stench. Where did all those guys go to the bathroom, anyway?
Dark City (1998)
Another movie where a guy wakes up at the start with amnesia and we get to figure out what’s going on along with him. And there’s also some manipulation of the environment at night, but the location is not a maze. Not that I should reveal too much about the setting at all, as that would ruin the mystery. Let’s just not say too much about this one at all and simply suggest you go in blind. The only thing I’ll note is that Connelly is in this one, too, but sadly no Bowie nor his codpiece.
And another movie where a guy wakes up at the start not sure where he is or how he got there, and like Thomas in The Maze Runner, he’s in motion. As were a bunch of others recently dropped into a strange environment where they soon discover there are nasty creatures out to hunt them. Only one of the human subjects thrown into the arena is a woman, much like Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) in the YA adaptation. Most of all, though, like The Maze Runner, Predators is a fairly thrilling treat that’s best when not given much thought. Hardly a great movie, but entertaining for good chunks at least.
Resident Evil (2002)
This is the last recommendation that begins with a main character waking up with amnesia (sorry, The Bourne Identity). That’s not even the most relevant part of this first Resident Evil installment. Nor is the way the trip through the underground Umbrella Corporation facility is very labyrinthine. It’s the way the movie ends, and unlike Dark City, this one I don’t mind spoiling given that it’s spawned so many sequels. Both Resident Evil and The Maze Runner conclude with the hero(es) finally making their way outside, only to find that the world outside is a wasteland and the story is just beginning.
The Village (2004)
To say that I like The Maze Runner as an improved remake on M. Night Shyamalan’s decade-old disappointment isn’t to spoil either of them. It’s merely in their setup premise that links them. Consider the titular village as being like The Maze Runner’s courtyard (“The Glade”), but it’s surrounded by forests rather than walls. In both movies the inhabitants of the place are told not to go beyond its borders because there are creatures out there. That’s all I’ll say. Except this: I’m recommending The Village not because it’s good but because sometimes it’s worthwhile seeing a lesser version of an idea in order to appreciate the one at hand.
Lord of the Flies (1963)
When Ball pitched his take on The Maze Runner as “Lord of the Flies meets Lost,” he may have meant the novel for the former. Yes, do read William Golding’s original text. But also see Peter Brook’s masterpiece of an adaptation, which like The Maze Runner is surprising in how good its young cast is. One thing about this story, though, is that inversely of The Village’s effect, Lord of the Flies will make you realize how thin and simplistic the boys’ society is in Ball’s adaptation (and very likely Dashner’s novel, too). Also, the characters of Ralph and Piggy will affect you far more than the parallel roles of Gally and Chuck do in The Maze Runner.
Days of Heaven (1978)
Ball has also been citing Terrence Malick as an influence on his adaptation (actor Aml Ameen has referenced a “Malick quality” to the movie, too), which is one of those things that can hurt your movie if you wind up attracting people expecting masterful direction and only get subpar filmmaking from a first timer. In one interview, he specifically mentions The Thin Red Line, but I find this earlier Malick movie to be more appropriate. It involves a couple (Richard Gere and Brooke Adams) who are newcomers to a place, and they’re passing themselves off as brother and sister despite actually being romantically involved. I don’t know what the exact relationship is between Thomas and Theresa in The Maze Runner, but they seem like they could either be siblings or lovers.
Son of Rambow (2007)
American moviegoers may sadly recognize Will Poulter (“Gally”) mainly from We’re the Millers or maybe The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, but he deserves to be best known for this little British coming-of-age movie from Garth Jennings (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). He plays Lee Carter, a pint-sized rebel and amateur moviemaker who is producing a redo of First Blood. His friendship with the pop-culture-ignorant Will (Bill Miner) is one of the greatest in modern cinema. These are boys being boys in a far more genuine and imaginative manner than those in the YA adaptation. Poulter is also probably the best actor in The Maze Runner, and so it’s no surprise looking back on his debut seven years ago that he’s always been a natural.
Love Actually (2003)
You’ve probably already seen Love Actually, if you’re ever going to. That’s okay, because this selection is especially recommended for those who have seen it before, because it’s fun to re-watch the ensemble rom-com after seeing Thomas Brodie-Sangster in something new, as an adult. In Richard Curtis’s holiday favorite, he’s still an adorable kid, the son of Liam Neeson’s character and the character with the sweetest arc of all. Brodie-Sangster is great in The Maze Runner and Game of Thrones and even interesting as Paul McCartney in Nowhere Boy, but he’ll never be as memorable as he is here, drumming backup for his school crush and running through the airport after her in order to bravely admit his feelings for her.
Wuthering Heights (2011)
Scodelario (who apparently was a fan favorite for the role of Katniss in The Hunger Games) is mostly just functional in The Maze Runner – except for when she lets her American accent slip, then she’s kind of distracting. She’s popular for better things back home, where she doesn’t have to change her voice for the part, including TV’s Skins and this Andrea Arnold adaptation of Emily Bronte’s classic novel. The actress definitely gets to do and show more, even though it’s often more interested in the setting than the people inhabiting it. That’s surprisingly not the case with The Maze Runner, which concentrates more on the runner than the maze.
12: The Damaged Race (2012)
Ameen, who plays “Alby,” is not just a rising star on screen. He is also a filmmaker, whose varied shorts can be seen on his Vimeo page. I’m highlighting this one, which as usual he also stars in, because it’s his most interesting and ambitious. It’s almost like a long-form music video, more allegory than story, as it’s about London in 2011, the whole year. The real star of the film is composer Justine Barker.
Bonus: Charlie Brown: Blockhead’s Revenge (2011)
Not quite a film, this Funny or Die sketch features O’Brien as Charlie Brown in a Peanuts horror parody. It’s pretty silly, as you might expect from something directed by Robert Ben Garant (who also plays Pig-Pen), but a necessary curiosity for anyone who likes this up-and-coming actor. Where’s Snoopy, though?