Right up until the end, when the movie takes a crazy turn and then stops for a giant information dump in preparation for its "to be continued" conclusion, The Maze Runner doesn't feel like another YA adaptation at all.
And, with all due respect to the thriving genre that has brought the world Katniss Everdeen, that's kind of wonderful. Dystopian young adult stories about stalwart, beautiful teens who learn to stand tall against oppressive governments are currently all the rage, from The Hunger Games and Divergent to also-ran The Giver, but they also follow the same pattern of training, a recognition of specialness, and eventual revolution. These high-cheekboned young folks in their artfully drab clothing (which could either be from a bleak future or a Rick Owens runway show) may live in a future gone mad, but their stories are in danger of feeling very sanely calculated.
The Maze Runner, which opens in theaters Sept. 19 and is adapted from James Dashner's novel of the same name, still has plenty of underlying similarities to its grim YA dystopian siblings, but it drops you into the action in a way that evokes more grown-up sci-fi like Lost or the 1997 cult film Cube. There's some dizzying world-building, unspooled in bits and pieces by the maze's residents (who call themselves Gladers and their home the Glade), but it's as much for the benefit of our hero, Thomas (Dylan O'Brien, who's perfectly fine), who's been wiped of all his memories, as it is for us. We're in the same boat — or, rather, box.
We arrive in the Glade the same way Thomas does in the film's opening scene, rocketing up on the caged-in platform that, once a month, emerges from below ground, carrying supplies and a new arrival to the square of greenery in which a group of teenage boys have been living for three years. A panicked Thomas blinks in the sunlight at his jeering new neighbors, scrambles out, then takes off running — only there's nowhere to go. The Glade's surrounded on all sides by giant concrete walls, with one ominous sliver leading out to dark parts unknown.
It's an arresting image, and the maze continues to be an enthrallingly creepy creation, even as we learn more about it and about the life that the Gladers have carved out in the three years since the first members of the community were brought in. There's the leader, Alby (Aml Ameen), who's helped figure out a system of hard-won peace, Alby's second-in-command Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and the sweet-natured Chuck (Blake Cooper), who befriend Thomas; Gally (Will Poulter) who instantly mistrusts him; and the Runners' leader Minho (Ki-hong Lee).
The Runners are Gladers who've been assigned to explore the maze that lies outside the walls of the enclosure, exploring and mapping, but always returning before the end of the day. That's when the door closes and creatures they've named the Grievers, which look like giant biomechanical spiders with a deadly stinger, come out to roam.
There are a system, rules, and power strata in place in the Glade, and what makes The Maze Runner so refreshingly agile is that Thomas doesn't care. He's interested in getting out, not setting in for the long haul, accepting a role growing crops, and figuring that whatever his life was like before, it's all about dwelling in the confines of a courtyard now. Thomas starts at a point that takes other dystopian YA stories half a movie to get to — he has no intentions of fitting into the scenario that's presented to him, and, to the distress of some of the other Gladers, he's willing to flip some tables on the way out.
The Maze Runner is more interested in what its characters do than who they are, especially given the universal memory wiping, which means its group of boys isn't all that defined in terms of personalities. Neither is the eventual girl, Teresa (Kaya Scodelario, not quite stable in her American accent), who, like a portentous Wendy Darling, is delivered into the land of the lost boys clutching a note claiming she's the "last one." The growing sense of urgency in the Glade suggests a major change is coming, though not all of its residents are willing to accept it, and the film finds some interesting drama in the Stockholm syndrome some of the Gladers have apparently developed.
Mostly, though, The Maze Runner's strengths are in its stunning setting and its action sequences, as characters venture out into the dark, ivy-covered passages of the labyrinth, where monsters roam. The movie, which is the first feature directed by visual effects artist Wes Ball, deliberately limits its scope in a way that works intriguingly well — until it's time for some answers, or at least more info, and then The Maze Runner encounters something much worse than a minotaur: the need to set up a sequel.
The Maze Runner is based on the first of a trilogy of books, and a film based on its sequel, The Scorch Trials, is already in the works. If it's anything like this first installment, it might be plenty effective, but how The Maze Runner bridges the gap to get there is with an insanely confusing series of reveals. Enter Patricia Clarkson, who's glimpsed earlier in the film in dream sequences, and a garbled explanation that feels more like the franchise shooing everyone along to the next level — Our Princess is in Another Castle, if you will.
When your story's based on a central mystery, it can be very difficult to provide an answer that feels satisfactory, but even with that in mind The Maze Runner ends on a crushingly disappointing note that privileges setting up the next movie more than reaching any kind of first episode closure. That might not bother fans of the series, who are already primed for what's coming, but as a stand-alone feature, The Maze Runner essentially trails away with an ellipsis.