It’s tempting to dismiss director Wes Ball’s adaptation of James Dashner’s young adult novel as a Hunger Games knock-off, but to do so would be unfair. A breath of fresh air into what is rapidly becoming a crowded sub-genre, The Maze Runner is a slickly plot-driven flick that delivers the basic sense of adventure that is sometimes missing from its relentlessly brooding cinematic progenitor.
The premise is fiendishly simple: Amnesic youth Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) finds himself deposited in the Glade, a large spread of pasture and woodlands in the center of an even larger Maze. The Glade is populated by a few dozen other teens with similar memory loss, some of whom have been there as long as three years.
The group have fashioned a makeshift society led by Alby (Aml Ameen), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Game of Thrones), and Gally (Will Poulter, We’re the Millers), and make use of monthly supply drops and what the grow and hunt from their surroundings. During the day, runners led by Minho (Ki Hong Lee) make forays into the Maze; at night, the Maze shapeshifts into a new configuration, always patrolled by bio-mechanical monstrosities called Grievers. It’s sort of like summer camp in the a slightly more idyllic circle of Hell.
Naturally, Thomas’ presence shakes up the balance, especially when he begins to press his fellow prisoners to leave the Glade and seek a way through the Maze. The fallout from one of the Runners’ excursions coupled with the arrival of the mysterious Theresa (Kaya Scodelario) makes escape less of an option and more of a necessity — though not everyone agrees. Cue the climactic bloodbath that owes as much to Lord of the Flies as it does to Lost.
Matter of fact, Dashner’s story mines a lot of familiar territory, including Battle Royale and just about every dystopic novel and film ever made, which works for and against the story — it’s familiar enough to keep us interested, though too familiar to be surprising. Nevertheless, it rarely stops being engaging, thanks largely to a tight script and well-paced direction by Ball. This is his feature film debut, and he shows a knack for propulsive storytelling and for the art of judicious use of CGI.
Though hampered by a frustrating lack of back-story (their characters were mind-wiped, after all), much of the young cast manages to stand out, especially Poulter, Brodie-Sangster, Lee, Blake Cooper as the Glade’s youngest inhabitant, and Patricia Clarkson in a small but pivotal supporting role. O’Brien and Scodelario often come across as ciphers whose secrets will be revealed in the inevitable sequel.
And a sequel there will no doubt be — the book is part of a trilogy, after all. Normally such an open ending would feel like a cheap story punt, but Ball and Company do a good job of making us want to see it, rather than feeling obligated to.