Mazes and Monsters: A Critical Fumble
Fyodor Dostoyevsky probably created the psychological thriller genre. Yet, many of his novels warn of the danger that psychology holds for the fiction writer. To create a "science" of the human soul--a powerful and tempting project. And worthy of the genius of the nineteenth century's greatest novelist. But, what do you get if you go too far? If you, so to speak, forget God while you toy with man and his demons?

Over a hundred years later, America had the answer. You get the 1982 made-for-TV movie Mazes and Monsters.

Will ye enter the Maze?

The movie's title refers to the forces of madness and the unknown faced by four college students: Tom Hanks, JayJay, a girl, and a blond guy. Thus, the movie follows a long tradition present in the literature and myth of every culture. I am talking about the story of initiation. I am talking about the transition from youth to adulthood that we must all undertake at some point in our lives. The conflicts of Mazes and Monsters are mythic, eternal. Unfortunately--and therein lies the movie's perversity--psychology leaves us with protagonists wholly unequal to the conflicts they encounter.

How can psychology hinder rather than help the portrayal of human beings? How can a discipline that aspires to science make a movie perverse, rather than true?

"Mazes and Monsters" is not merely a euphemism for the ominous darkness within us. It is also the name of a roleplaying game that takes hold of the movie protagonists' lives. Perhaps "game" is an inaccurate descriptor, for it is more than merely a game. Although superficially similar to TSR's Dungeons and Dragons, "Mazes and Monsters" serves a very different function. Unlike in Dungeons and Dragons, the goal is not simply to outtalk one's friends. Rather, it is to cooperatively explore one's personal problems together with one's friends via the metaphor of tepid fantasy characters.

In this way, the relationship-obsessed girl becomes "Glacia," a strong, icy fighter who doesn't have to worry about rejection. JayJay, whose mom doesn't pay enough attention him, becomes "Freelic," a thief who knows many tricks--including, he hopes, winning others' love. The blond character becomes the "Maze Master," the God of the game universe, in order to wrest control of his life away from his own father. And, finally, Tom Hanks--Protestant America's everyman--becomes Pardieu, a man of God.

What could be the problem with this setup? After all, the characters' motivations are seemingly so accurate, so exact. There is an aura of science here, despite the absence of the scientific method. One senses the heavy, pale hand of psychology influencing this film 1.

The problem is this: over-relying on psychology in fiction reduces characters to their component parts. It destroys the whole man, or woman. Characters become nothing except a collection of case histories. Meanwhile, reality--even the simplified, artificial reality of a supposedly therapeutic game--is more complicated than that. Pretty soon, the game of "Mazes and Monsters" exceeds its original parameters. Ambiguity sets in. Pride sets a plot in motion.

And the characters cannot respond adequately to this ambiguity, which is inherent in any game of "pretend." They were not written that way. Each character is no more than his or her particular problem. JayJay IS his desire to be loved. Tom Hanks IS his longing to be closer to God. And so on. None of the characters, to borrow the parlance of psychology, possess a sufficiently strong "ego." None have a robust, holistic sense of who they are, apart from their surroundings.

And so, each character falls prey to his or her individual weakness. They start committing evil acts. These include: entering a dangerous cave; cheating at "Mazes and Monsters"; crying; and even, in the case of Tom Hanks, mistaking the game for reality. The initiation into adulthood fails. Furthermore, with its flawed model of human consciousness Mazes and Monsters insinuates that NO ONE need become an adult.

My advice? Do not waste your time with this philosophically bankrupt fare. Two stars, out of five.


1 To better comprehend this image, picture the large, soft hand that might belong, for example, to a young but already enervated king, one of the last in a dying dynasty.

Posted by xerxes on Sat, 12 Apr 2008 02:19:45 -0400 -- permanent link

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