It’s no secret that there’s nothing YA-skewing feature films love more than putting kids in peril – all the better if those films are adapted from bestselling books – be it thanks to corrupt governments (“The Hunger Games”), cancer (“The Fault in Our Stars”), or abusive relationships (“Twilight”), but the seemingly played out genre still has some life pulsing through its hormonal veins, and Wes Ball’s “The Maze Runner” does a fair bit to course-correct the otherwise runaway subset of features. Adapted from James Dashner’s book of the same name (the first in a trilogy, because of course it is), Ball’s film still puts kids in peril, but the relatively low-key feature also allows those same kids to use their smarts, their personalities, and their own personal drives to solve some major issues. That’s progressive enough.
Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) is both our entry point into the world and our lead character, and the film opens as he arrives at the sunny and green Glade, via a screeching freight elevator that pushes him up into blazing sunlight and a baffling crowd of boys. “The Maze Runner” may be littered with questions – “what’s that? who’s there? where are we? what’s that? no, really, what’s that?” – but at least they’re compelling queries that the audience wants the answers to as well. The Glade sure looks nice, like a quaint little village put together by whip smart teens that look as if they’ve been shaken loose from a Gap ad, but there’s something lurking just outside the frame. Well, it lurks as much as a giant stone labyrinth can lurk, because the square Glade is surrounded on all sides by a massive and seemingly unnavigable maze.
Despite some major shocks, Thomas has some immediate needs to meet (mainly, that he can’t remember his name, or anything else for that matter), but the rest of the “Gladers” assure him that that’s normal. It’s happened to all of them. New recruits – “Greenies,” in Glade parlance – arrive every month, along with necessary supplies, a system that’s worked for years. The maze is a vicious one, a behemoth that changes every single night and is filled with monsters (“Grievers”) to boot, but the boys are still dedicated to getting out of it. Alby (Aml Ameen) is the de facto leader of the group – later, we’ll discover that he was the first boy, arriving three years ago, and that’s not necessarily a big surprise – but the Gladers are divided into a number of different groups, based on their various skills and jobs. The Runners, well, they run the maze every day (when it’s ostensibly safe) in an attempt to find a way out, and their cocky confidence hides some big secrets and some obvious stress.
Thomas may be new, but he’s brash and bold, and he begins to shake things up almost immediately. The rigid rules and rituals that hold the Gladers together – don’t go in the maze at night! no one gets out of it alive! never hurt each other! – begin to steadily crumble and Thomas, who hasn’t lived with these laws long enough to respect them, appears to be the source of the big, unsettling changes. But is he really?
The film boasts a solid cast of emerging talent, not just limited to O’Brien (who is a fine young leading man), but rounded out by strong supporting turns by Ameen, Thomas Brodie-Sangster (yup, the kid from “Love Actually”), Will Poulter, Ki Hong Lee, Blake Cooper, and Kaya Scodelario (who should get lots more screentime in the film’s inevitable sequel). The film’s background talent – the Glade is crammed with boys, after all – could stand to look a touch more involved and less confused by the action, however, but that’s a minor quibble.
Dashner’s series spans three books (and a related prequel), and the film is beholden to serve both long-running fans and to ensnare new ones, which means one thing: it has to hint at what’s to come. Dashner’s first novel isn’t as heavy on the backstory and vague explanations as Ball’s feature is, and the film is riddled with exposition meant to push forward into the franchise’s later stories. Fans of Dashner’s books will recognize most of the big reveals of the film’s third act as belonging to the second book in the series (“The Scorch Trials”), and although letting on that there’s a bigger world to explore is necessary to the longevity of the series, it bogs down the individual film.
“The Maze Runner” is mainly interested with focusing on the maze itself – an obvious choice, but a relatively small one in the world of YA films so bent on “world-building” – and the film’s first two acts work because the story is so (quite literally) contained. There are kids, and they are trapped in a maze, and they want to get out. Surely there’s something beyond those walls, and obviously someone has put them there, but the kids are set on clearing that first hurdle. For a genre that so often sacrifices character development and smaller narrative developments, the majority of “The Maze Runner” feels quite refreshing and worth the navigation.