A young man (Teen Wolf’s Dylan O’Brien) awakes in the throes of panic, rising through the darkness in a small metal box, with no memory of how he got there or even who he is. His name is Thomas, though that little nugget of information won’t come back to him for another day or so, after he’s had some time to adjust to his new circumstances. The Maze Runner opens with this frightening entry, wasting no time on prologue or prelude. Within minutes, the situation is clear: Thomas is the newest arrival to The Glade, a grassy outpost populated exclusively by teenage boys, all ripped unceremoniously from lives they can’t remember. Surrounding their new home is an enormous, shifting labyrinth; each morning, “runners” brave its narrow passageways, mapping its architecture and searching for a way out. Those who fail to return before nightfall, when the entrance to the maze closes, are never seen or heard from again.
The Maze Runner draws its familiar, Twilight Zone premise from the first book in James Dashner’s teen-lit series. But don’t hold that against it: As YA adaptations go, it’s surprisingly brisk, tough, and unsentimental, sharing more in common with the old British television series The Prisoner than with, say, The Hunger Games. There’s no tortured love triangle here, or even a love interest, really. In fact, the drama revolves entirely around how the characters approach their unique predicament. Thomas, the shock to this mysterious system, is the typical embodiment of headstrong individualism; he wants to make an escape plan, not accept his role in the group’s makeshift society. His philosophy naturally clashes with that of the film’s nominal antagonist, Gally (Will Poulter, from We’re The Millers), who’s been at the Glade longer than any of the others and is a real stickler for the survival rules he helped establish. The story’s real villains, of course, are the unseen engineers of this bizarre deathtrap, as well as their enforcers, a race of H.R. Giger-ish monsters that patrol the maze. The beasts only attack under cover of darkness, which is convenient for the special-effects team.
Making his feature directorial debut, industry veteran Wes Ball—who has a slew of art department and special effects credits to his name—capably handles both the CGI-abetted action and his ensemble of teen stars, including Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Game Of Thrones) and Kaya Scodelario (playing the first girl introduced into this testosterone-heavy habitat). His characters, denied backstories or more than a single, primal goal, aren’t exactly multidimensional. But there are stray moments of poignancy: One boy gives away a trinket from his parents, reasoning that it’s meaningless without any memories of the people who gave it to him, and Gally becomes something of a tragic figure, staving off hysteria by clinging to the hierarchies of his sad little community. Anyway, the stripped-bare quality of the storytelling is refreshing. The Maze Runner bucks the conventions of its genre by functioning as a pure cliffhanger machine, fueled by mystery instead of melodrama.
Eventually, though, that mystery must be solved, and the film’s final minutes are a little deflating, both for the expository answers they provide and for their mercenary function as sequel setup. It’s here that The Maze Runner most betrays its airport-fiction roots, revealing itself as a blatantly inconclusive entry in a prospective franchise. Just as the characters manage to navigate the murkily metaphoric layout of the labyrinth, only to discover something just as treacherous on the other side, viewers not already invested in Dashner’s grand design may feel underwhelmed by the “ending.” In other words, if you’re going to treat your audience like a rat in a maze, it’s best to offer a tastier reward than the promise of more maze to come.