“The Maze Runner” opens with a jolt. Submerged in water, a young man is suddenly lifted by freight elevator ever upward. But this dark box is also a cage — and he’s not alone. Some unseen animal scurries in the corner.
At the top, an even more perplexing situation greets this youth with no memory of his past. What follows provides a mostly entertaining adventure that plays like “Lord of the Flies” meets “Cube” meets an intelligent design lecture.
The latest in the 2014 batch of teen dystopian adaptations (next up “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1”), “The Maze Runner” separates itself from “Divergent” and “The Giver” with its relentless intensity. This is a movie less concerned with social commentary via a hypothetical future and more with in-the-moment thrills.
Once this dreamy dude (solidly played by Dylan O’Brien of TV’s “Teen Wolf”) remembers his name is Thomas, he finds that other males his age populate the center of an enormous, ever-shifting maze. Every month the box sends up more supplies and a new recruit. But there’s no explanation as to who or why, only what.
The captives have established their own government under the leadership of the rational Alby (Aml Ameen) and his lieutenant Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster — the voice of Ferb on TV’s “Phineas and Ferb”), who lay out the rules and terminology of this place they call the Glade. Thomas learns the strongest and fastest become “runners,” whose duty is to map the maze for a possible escape route before the towering gates shut for the night. Meanwhile, the complacent bully Gally (Will Poulter of “We’re the Millers”) notices Thomas’ arrival has brought a dangerous change in the maze’s predictability.
Thomas: “We’re trapped here, aren’t we?”
Newt: “For the moment.”
Every labyrinth has its minotaur, and in this case they are creatures called Grievers. These huge, goo-dripping hunters look like a cross between a scorpion and a mechanical shipyard crane. Boys who get stuck in the maze after dark become dinner.
James Dashner’s 2009 novel survives the Hollywood transition fairly intact thanks to its intrinsic sense of mystery. The film portions out info at a controlled tempo, so the audience learns secrets when Thomas does. Wolverine-esque flashbacks fill in the blanks.
It’s a sharp first feature for director Wes Ball, who’s worked his way up from doing graphics for behind-the-scenes promo material for new movies. He’s particularly deft at wrangling the technical elements. The production design is slick — it’s difficult to tell where the sets end and special effects begin. And the movie offers a headphones-friendly sound design, a bombardment of far-off gears grinding as stone and iron constantly form new patterns.
“The Maze Runner” begins to get a little rusty once the final player is introduced to the Glade: Teresa (Kaya Scodelario). It’s easier to believe in robotic scorpions than the plausibility of high school boys who’ve been isolated for years wanting to immediately banish a pretty girl for breaking rules.
About this time, the brave, smart and resourceful Thomas makes a decision that goes against everything he’s been striving for, just so the plot can flow in another direction. The final act is fast-paced but progressively effects-dependent and less intriguing. By the time the manipulative reveals happen, it’s clear these characters truly are running in circles.
‘THE MAZE RUNNER’