If you see one film about walled-in males this fall, it should be the savage and powerful British prison drama “Starred Up,” a superlatively acted father-son story played out behind bars and starring up-and-coming Jack O’Connell.
Not many are likely to make that choice, though, as “The Maze Runner,” based on the James Dashner 2009 fantasy novel, will surely multiply the business of “Starred Up” many times over with a far more tame film barely distinct from the hordes of young-adult sci-fi adaptations sprinting through movie theaters.
Has a cottage industry ever sprung up as fast as the YA land rush brought on by “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games”? I’d like to use a mortal instrument to put an ender to this game. Please, giver me a break.
But to be fair, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with “The Maze Runner,” directed by special effects-veteran Wes Ball. It’s just that it does so little to find its own path separate from its dystopia brethren. All of the recent young-adult formulas are adhered to here: the teenage rebellion against tradition, the coming-of-age metaphors, the heavy sequel-baiting.
Dylan O’Brien, best known as one of the stars of MTV’s “Teen Wolf,” stars as Thomas, a newbie to a strange prison called “The Glade” — a pastoral park surrounded by a monolith concrete maze. The movie, with a neat lack of exposition, starts with Thomas being elevated into this world and dropped there without any memory of life outside or his identity.
He’s quickly indoctrinated to the ways and order of the Glade, where several dozen other boys have also been plunked down like lab rats for the last three years. Under the leadership of the calm Alby (Ami Ameen) and the more questionable rigidity of Gally (Will Poulter), they make exploratory runs into the maze each day before the gate closes at sundown.
“The Maze Runner” succeeds most in its “Lord of the Flies”-like collection of teenagers. (Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Blake Cooper are among the distinct faces in the crowd.) When a lone girl (Kaya Scodelario) is surprisingly elevated into the Glade, they, like proper adolescents, blink with astonishment: “It’s a girl.”
There’s a pleasantly low-fi, bare-bones kind of storytelling here, at least before the movie’s mysteries are boringly explained — another apocalypse to parse.
Thomas, curious and daring, quickly upends the routines of the Glade and manages to discover more about the concrete labyrinth, which is patrolled by weird, giant, half-robot scorpions dubbed “Grievers.” (That the only monsters “The Maze Runner” can summon are “weird, giant, half-robot scorpions” is surely a hint to its lack of imagination.)
The maze, too, is a letdown. Given that it’s the central conceit of the film, one expects more than domino rows of big cinderblocks. Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance, who so memorably stalked the snowy hedge maze of “The Shining,” wouldn’t bat an eye at these drab corridors.