I don't mean to sound cynical about the movie-making business, but once in a while it almost feels like the genre films I'm watching are plugged into some kind of formula. In the opening twenty minutes of The Maze Runner, our hero Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) arrives in a grassy idyll called "The Glade," surrounded on all sides by a towering maze. Lacking a memory, he's filled in on the rules by nice boss-kid Alby (Aml Ameen). It's pretty simple: the Glade is filled with teenage boys, none of them remember anything but their names, and don't go into the maze. Why don't go into the maze? Well, it's filled with monsters, it seals itself up at night, and they get food and supplies with every new arrival every month. Why would you go in the maze?
Okay, some kids go in the maze. Like all of these young-adult sci-fi movies (this is based on a 2009 novel by James Dashner that was…wait for it…the first in a series) there's all kinds of lingo and logistics to learn. The kids who go in the maze are called Runners, and they dash about all day trying to map it out before the sun goes down. Don't get stung by any monsters, also! That makes you sick, and then you go through something called "The Changing" (read: you go crazy). Everyone else has a role: there's Builders, Healers, whatever else you can think of. I didn't notice any film critics, so hopefully I won't find myself emerging from a metal box into the Glade anytime soon.
After we spend the first act getting the lay of the land, Thomas immediately starts making trouble for no particularly good reason. He's just so eager to get into that maze! It probably says something about myself that my reaction to the plot of The Maze Runner was "Why leave the Glade? Got everything you need right there!" Thomas has to cause a ruckus, break the rules and start poking around in the maze to move the plot forward, but I was at least heartened that all of the other boys had decided just to stay put. Maybe I'm not a coward after all.
I have no real complaints about The Maze Runner, which I'm sure will make a good amount of money this weekend to justify the sequel that is already in pre-production. O'Brien didn't set my world on fire, but he's winsome enough. The action, from first-time director Wes Ball, is competent but pretty unspectacular, and the same goes for the special effects. It doesn’t help that aside from some boring-looking (but creepy-sounding) monsters, all the action involves our heroes dodging around a giant maze. Even when it clanks around and locks its walls together, it's hard to make it seem anything but stationary.
The Maze Runner dutifully raises the stakes every twenty minutes or so. A girl called Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) shows up and stirs memories of Thomas' past; a grumpy Glade veteran called Gally (Will Poulter) clashes with Thomas over his cavalier maze-running; Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Blake Cooper play less physically gifted residents who crack wise in the background as best they can. Like The Hunger Games or Divergent, the movie is depressingly short on gags and long on mysterious dystopian fear; I'm sure this is the kind of dark matter teens love to sink their teeth into, but I could have used a bit of levity, or hell, some romance. Although it's hard not to pity Teresa as she arrives at the Glade to the sight of a dozen boys looking down at her with puzzlement.
In the end, The Maze Runner has two mysteries to solve: number one, how do you get out of the maze, and number two, who built the maze and for what purpose? It bowled me over with neither resolution but I can't deny being inured to this sort of material at this point. Not only do I expect a young-adult sci-fi thriller to point directly at a sequel, it's practically guaranteed that the third book will get split into two parts, because no book-to-film adaptation was hurt by being robbed of an effective conclusion.
It's perhaps unfair to lob the flaws of the recent Young Adult trend at The Maze Runner, but it embraces those flaws so readily and yet does nothing to add anything distinctive to the genre. I'll say this—it's a very male, very results-oriented movie, less mopey and emotionally conflicted than some of its forbears. What's in the maze, Thomas asks? Monsters? Well, let's kill the monsters, solve the maze, then we'll figure out the next step. If nothing else, I can't deny, our hero is no ditherer.