Film Review: The Maze Runner

Youths try to break out of a deadly maze in the latest young-adult doomsday thriller.

James Dashner's bestselling The Maze Runner gets a sturdy workout in this adaptation, the first in a planned series. Pulling viewers into theatres will be the hard part for 20th Century Fox; once there, they will be won over by the movie's good-looking cast and steady direction.

Like most franchise openers, The Maze Runner needs so much groundwork that it's nearly an hour before the real action begins. But in a smart move, hero Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) suffers from amnesia, and has to figure out what's going on just as the audience does. He's been sent by elevator to a bucolic field fenced in by enormous stone walls. Behind them a deadly maze awaits, its walls shifting into new patterns each night.

Thomas joins a group of youths led by Alby (Aml Ameen). Some tend vegetable patches, others build huts and lookout towers. Runners led by Minho (Ki Hong Lee) try to map out the maze while avoiding Grievers, deadly beasts who come out at night.

No one knows why they have been sent to the "Glade," or where the maze ultimately leads. But as Thomas' memory returns, he decides to break tradition and find an exit, no matter what. He's joined by Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), the group's only girl, and a few others, but also draws the enmity of enforcers led by Gally (Will Poulter).

The screenwriters do little to hide the story's derivative nature, tossing a bit of Lord of the Flies here, a lot of The Hunger Games there. But Poulter, Ameen and O'Brien in particular are so dedicated to their roles that The Maze Runner builds considerable tension before anything actually happens.

When they finally come, the action scenes—mostly chases through maze corridors and battles with the Grievers—are bluntly effective, the focus more on sweaty physical stunts than computer-generated effects. Thomas and his allies are fighting the same perils an earlier generation of cliffhanging stars faced, but director Wes Ball stages them with style and intensity.

Ball may have won this job on the basis of Ruin, a dystopian Mad Max-style short that was essentially all special effects. Making his feature debut, the director finds a good balance between showcasing his young cast and presenting a familiar story in bright, vivid terms. His biggest problem is an open-ended plot that is leading all too obviously to a sequel.

Fox is a little late to the YA post-apocalyptic party, but is already developing the second novel in the series, The Scorch Trials. Despite its shortcomings, The Maze Runner is a surprisingly solid movie, and its fans should generate enough interest to keep the series running.

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