Take three dozen teenage boys, wipe their memories and drop them in a square-shaped courtyard surrounded by an impenetrable 40-foot maze, and you have a recipe for trouble.
Not to mention a pretty apt metaphor for adolescence.
You also have the basic premise for “The Maze Runner,” a new science-fiction film adapted from the first novel of a popular young adult series from Utah author James Dashner.
The "runner" in question is Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), a young man in his late teens who wakes up in an industrial elevator before he's deposited in a mysterious clearing called "The Glade." The Glade is a primitive commune inhabited by several dozen teenage boys, surrounded on all sides by the massive walls of a vast labyrinth. None of the boys has any memory of his life previous to arriving, and so they have constructed their own makeshift society built around some basic rules.
One of the most important of those rules is to stay out of the maze, which is inhabited by a group of robotic scorpion-monsters called "Grievers." Anyone caught in the maze after dark is guaranteed a quick death, and the only Gladers allowed in the maze during the day are a special group called "Runners," who have been tasked with mapping out a potential path to freedom. Unfortunately, in three years of exploration, no exit has been found.
Enter Thomas, who, like most young adult heroes, is “different.” Soon after his arrival, things start to change. Grievers begin attacking during the day, and two days after Thomas arrives, the enigmatic industrial elevator at the center of the glade offers up a new member for the group: a girl named Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), who seems to know Thomas.
The changes are alarming to the rank-and-file Gladers, who symbolize some basic human mindsets. Alby (Aml Ameen) is the de facto leader of the group, tasked with keeping hope of escape alive. Gally (Will Poulter) is highly suspicious of Thomas, mostly because he is a threat to the comfortable lifestyle that has fed into the veteran’s complacency.
"The Lord of the Flies" allusions are fairly obvious, and “Maze Runner” fits in nicely alongside other entries in the apocalypse-heavy young adult genre (albeit with a male protagonist). But in a way, “Maze Runner” feels most similar to ABC’s “Lost,” the six-season television series that traced the adventures of a group of airplane crash survivors trapped on a mysterious island. The film carries the show’s dark, foreboding vibe, and the Grievers even make some sounds similar to the Island’s notorious Smoke Monster.
“Maze Runner” also has a habit of answering questions with new questions, and as Thomas and company make their way further into their adventure, new doors and new mysteries continue to open before them. If "The Maze Runner" has a primary weakness, it's a determination to set the stage for a larger story without resolving its own. Without giving too much away, let’s just say “The Maze Runner” feels pretty confident about its chances at a sequel (which is reportedly already in pre-production).
Given the quality of director Wes Ball’s installment, a sequel may not be a bad thing. “Maze Runner” may be aimed at a young adult audience, but it’s a well-executed film that doesn’t fall into a lot of the standard young adult limitations. At times, it feels almost like a horror movie, and the effects used to create the environment of the maze are impressive. Audiences may also be surprised at the amount of violent, dark content in the film. It’s definitely still in PG-13 territory, but “Maze Runner” is not a film for small children.
The film stumbles a bit as it enters its third act, and audiences who were frustrated by the “Lost” style of drawing out suspense might find similar frustrations here. But overall, “The Maze Runner” is a solid piece of science fiction that features an interesting story and some compelling visuals. It’s also a good sign that we’re emerging from that late summer, early fall swoon and getting ready to see some quality movies in the theaters again.
“The Maze Runner” is rated PG-13 for dark sequences of violence, as well as some scattered profanity.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. More of his work is at woundedmosquito.com.