As world-creation YA pictures go, “The Maze Runner” feels refreshingly low-tech and properly story-driven, based on James Dashner’s popular 2009 fantasy novel. Much of the action unfolds in a large field, and the spidery thingies that crawl out of the woodwork to afflict a band of boys trying to escape a mysterious confinement have an old-fashioned, bio-mechanical charm. Though the pacing drags a bit in the first hour and there’s not much character development unless you count the cast’s bicep-building hours at the gym, Wes Ball’s feature debut builds solidly to an exciting battle finale and a big reveal that doubles as coming-of-age parable. Though the addition of a lone girl feels tacked on, if the film doesn’t beef up the summer’s watery box office, it won’t be for lack of female bums in seats. Girls flock to action and horror these days, especially when they come plentifully stocked with the comely likes of “Teen Wolf’s” Dylan O’Brien and his band of muscled bros.
“The Maze Runner” plunges in — as it must, or give the game away to the five teenagers who have not read Dashner’s bestselling novel — with room-shattering noises off as a buff young fellow (O’Brien) is transported in a cage, he knows not where or why or by whom, to a landscape that, at first blush, closely resembles an Outward Bound campsite. Indeed, those who remember their days at summer camp with fondness may wish to linger in the Glade, a huge field dotted with handmade lean-tos, knotted ropes and tanned, ax-wielding, ethnically diverse boys who make fun of the baffled new arrival, who has momentarily forgotten his own name.
A helpful hazing brings it back, and Thomas quickly, if not quiescently, acclimates to the Glade, which for all its bucolic beauty is edged with sinister creeping vines (the film was shot in rural Louisiana) and surrounded by walls too high to scale — and one tantalizing opening. Egged on by the regulation bully (Will Poulter), most of Thomas’s fellow Gladers come on like obedient frat boys, crossed with “Lord of the Flies” castaways trying to improvise social order in the absence of adult authority. Except that nothing could be more antithetical to can-do American individualism than the bleak British fatalism of William Golding’s novel. On more fronts than one, “The Maze Runner” tells a different story, an old-fashioned American tale of one boy whose resourceful courage, refusal to obey rules, and emergent leadership skills carry a raggedy army of prisoners to freedom and responsibility for a catastrophically fallen world.
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Though he operates his own CGI company, first-time director Ball handles special effects with impressive economy, as they pertain organically to the story. If anything, the action dawdles a bit for its first hour, dwelling on setup until at last Thomas, accompanied by a muscled pal (Ki Hong Lee) with whipped hair, breaches the forbidden opening in the wall and enters the dread Maze, which has no exit and from which no one returns unscathed.
Only then do we meet the Grievers — giant, hairy, tarantula-like critters that patrol this dank labyrinth, dispensing sticky stuff and nasty stingers that kill and maim on demand. Back and forth go Thomas and company between these two, building courage, resolve and ingenuity as they go. The last girl on Earth shows up to lend a hand, mysteriously murmuring Thomas’s name and raining missiles on the boys from the treehouse where they hold her. More Kristen Stewart than Jennifer Lawrence, Teresa (played by Kaya Scodelario of the British television series “Skins”) is enchantingly rumpled, un-buffed and equipped with only a hard stare from her striking blue eyes.
Scodelario’s one-of-the-lads brio is a touch wasted here, for Teresa adds little to the story other than to jog Thomas’ memories of whence he came and spur him on to mobilize the troops for a climactic battle to free themselves from the Maze. The great Patricia Clarkson bows in all too briefly to upend the team’s sense of their past and their future. If the rites of passage feel a touch perfunctory and hasty — well, you can never go wrong telling teenagers that they’re different, special and chosen to lead a broken world forward into “The Maze Runner, Part Deux.”