Like a brainteasing hybrid of Lost and Lord of the Flies, The Maze Runner is the latest YA literary sensation that has been given a Tinseltown makeover and shipped off to the multiplex to win over the hearts and minds of teenagers. Don't let that YA tag put you off, though. There isn't a dying heroine or hunky vampire to be found anywhere in this better-than-average adaptation of the James Dashner bestseller. Just a bunch of confused kids on the run from a mysterious organization known as W.C.K.D.
Dylan O'Brien, best known as one of the stars of MTV's lycanthropic slice of '80s nostalgia, Teen Wolf, plays Thomas, a young guy who wakes up panting and sweating in an industrial elevator that deposits him in the middle of a verdant field. The place is surrounded on all four sides by towering stone walls and looks like the quad on the campus of the world's worst party school. Thomas' memory has been wiped clean, but he's not alone. Greeting him with suspicion are dozens of other Lost Boys in Henley tees who quickly haze him as the ''greenie'' newcomer and fill him in on the laws and castes of their jungle society, which they call the Glade. Like him, they all arrived from mysterious provenance and have spent their time in confinement trying to figure out a way to escape while running from giant spider-like creatures called Grievers, who look only slightly more convincing than the papier maché arachnid that feasted on Mary Ann's coconut cream pies on Gilligan's Island.
Thomas quickly proves to be an invaluable addition to the tribe. He's curious and brave and he doesn't cower from the Glade's resident bully (We're The Millers' Will Poulter). He's such an asset, in fact, that he takes his place among the most heroic subgroup: the Runners. Each day, these Runners head off through an ominous passage in the walls and sprint through a maze of byzantine alleyways and deadly obstacles, charting its boundaries and searching for a way out. Designed to look like the cement walls of an old Soviet foundry, the Maze is an impressive conjuring of both CGI and the imagination, and the setting of the film's most breathless action sequences. Unlike the spidery Grievers, the living, breathing labyrinth wows you with a creepy sense of awe.
Who built this place? What's expected of these young prisoners? And what do the ubiquitous initials W.C.K.D. have to do with it all? Thomas needs to know. And when a young woman (Kaya Scoledario) arrives, she hints that Thomas may already have a clue as to why he's there...if he could only remember. The first two-thirds of The Maze Runner are a clever feat of fantasy world building. It's thrilling, twisty, and as mysterious as the mammoth Skinner Box environment the film takes place in. But the promising set-up raises so many puzzle-piece questions that when it's all finally explained in the final reel, you can't help feeling a bit gypped. Having not read the book, I was hoping for a more satisfying payoff than the one I got. Then again, maybe the filmmakers are saving the answers for the sequel (which is all but announced during the final scene). Either way, I couldn't help thinking: Is that all there is? B-