Fantasy YA seems to be a genre-de-choice of late. From this OA critic to those unaware of this phenomenon, that’s the Young Adult science-fiction-or-fantasy-book-to-movie school. One that has experienced a blockbuster vacuum since the last viewing of Harry Potter and his cohorts, was awakened with the now thankfully exhausted “Twilight” Saga films (based on four novels by Stephanie Meyer), and more recently has been filled by Katniss Everdeen in the adventure novels from Suzanne Collins. There’s also the weaker “Percy Jackson & the Olympians” books, turned into two movies featuring Logan Lerman. The misfires include last year’s “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” and “Beautiful Creatures,” and the recent “The Giver.” I’d love to see a sequel to “Warm Bodies.” So, if you need a fix and you can’t wait for the next installment of much more original “The Hunger Games” (the first part of the third book, “Mockingjay,” arriving in mid-November) or for Shailene Woodley to kick a*s in the “Divergent” follow-ups (“Insurgent” is due out next March), you can get a decent buzz off of James Dashner’s post-apocalyptic sci-fi series with the arrival of “The Maze Runner,” a better than I expected first feature from visual effects wiz Wes Ball, adapted by Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers, and T.S. Nowlin from the 2009 bestseller.
Filmed on an incredibly low budget ($34 million) for such an awesome looking universe, the film should be profitable within days of release and at least the next chapter in the series will be greenlit by producer Twentieth Century-Fox. The amazing thing is that the studio went with such a novice filmmaker. Ball’s only previous directing experience was an 8-minute CGI action short called “Ruin,” a thrill-a-second 3-D ride that he actually never saw on the big screen until Fox invited him out to Hollywood after one of its executives caught the video online. He thought Fox wanted him to direct and write an expanded, feature-length version of the short (and they have optioned it for production), but they thought he was a better fit with “The Maze Runner,” as both are set in a dystopian future with an abundance of vine-covered walls.
The action in “The Maze Runner” begins right out of the gate. The film’s lead, Dylan O’Brien, star of the MTV series “Teen Wolf,” gets his big screen comeuppance (he had a supporting role in last year’s “The Internship“) as a frightened young lad in a locked elevator cage going up, without a clue how he got there, and without his memory. He lands in a large encampment—a pastoral version of “Lord of the Flies” comes to mind—with other boys who all stumbled in “The Glade” under the same circumstances. They all remember their names, eventually, but nothing else.
Left to fend for themselves with the arrival of limited supplies from their apparent puppet masters, they’ve built a colony with a government of sorts, with each new arrival (every 30 days a new boy gets shuttled up) getting assigned a specific duty. There’s an accepted camaraderie afoot. They can’t escape because they are surrounded by towering concrete walls, a mammoth maze that has 20-foot-tall gates that open and close at set times. A few of the boys have become daily “maze runners,” venturing into the every-changing cement and gear puzzle, trying to map out its expanse and seek escape. Those that don’t return by nightfall are trapped inside and became fodder for ugly-looking bio-mechanical beasties called Grievers, with scorpion-like stingers that cause madness for anyone injected with its venom.
With the arrival of Thomas (O’Brien), the accepted status quo apple cart of obedient rural life is tipped over. First, because Thomas seems to believe he was somehow involved with the people (an organization known as WCKD) running this whole experiment. Second, because he’s an inquisitive kid who wants solving the maze to become the community’s top priority. And he’s got the smarts, courage, and the athleticism to figure it out. And that is pretty much enough to power the film through a busy battle climax to its unsettling conclusion.
The mostly male cast are a generally muscular bunch. They do a decent job with their assignments. Chief lost boy is Alby (Aml Ameen, from the cancelled tv series “Harry’s Law”); the resident chubby, sincere kid is Chuck (Blake Cooper); Alby’s right-hand-man Newt is played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Jojen Reed, for “Game of Thrones” fans); a runner sidekick (Minho, played by Ki Hing Lee); and Will “We’re the Millers” Poulter is the town bully, Gally. As for the ladies. British actress Kaya Scodelario, late of the BBC series “Skins,” and the indie film queen Patricia Clarkson, appear late in the movie–and will be presumably get more screen time in any sequels.
The camerawork by Enrique Chediak (“127 Hours,” “28 Weeks Later“) catches much of the action in close- and medium-shots, and it was claustrophobic and confusing to figure out who was doing something to what (the Grievers, mostly) in the various battle scenes.
I smell popcorn. I smell franchise.