The rules of engagement have changed in the ongoing push-me/pull-you of tentpole filmmaking, especially when aiming at the oh-so-important young adult demographic. That is a very business-minded opening sentence for a review, but these days, when you're making a film like “The Maze Runner,” it is a very business-minded endeavor. If you get one of these movies right, you buy yourself the room to make two or three or however many more. Casting is a huge part of that, as is the way you bait the hook for the larger franchise.
Wes Ball's background is in animation and effects, and he certainly has an eye for composition. Thankfully, he doesn't just lean on visual flash in his debut feature, the adaptation of the first of James Dashner's four books, and his skills allow him to build a convincing world around his appealing cast without losing them in it completely.
Much of the film takes place in one location, so it's important to get that location right, and The Glade serves as an effective prison for these boys, all of them transported to this place with no memory of a life before, unsure what is expected of them or why they've been trapped. The film opens with Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) in an elevator, on his way to the surface, and it's a wise choice. Part of the appeal of this type of publishing right now is the way these characters serve as surrogates for the reader. “One of these days, everyone's going to realize that I'm special and that I should be the one people pay attention to.” It is as common a yearning as I can imagine, and that's what all of these books play into. Here, the young men exist without contact with anyone else, and Alby (Ami Ameen) leads them in a loosely organized society called, unshockingly, The Gladers.
Their primary goal is clear. The Glade lies at the heart of a labyrinth of always-changing walls, and every day, the fastest of the Gladers head into the maze to try to map their way to an escape, a task that seems impossible. Fans of the book should be happy as the young cast does good energetic work, and most of the major beats of the book have made it to the screen in spirit if not to the letter. Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers and T.S. Nowlin have distilled the book into a fairly breathless piece of screenwriting, and Ball does his part to try to keep this urgency up from start to finish.
One final prisoner is delivered to the Glade, a mysterious girl named Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), and Thomas is shocked to learn that she is the key to unlocking concrete memories of his past. As Thomas upends the carefully constructed order of the Gladers, inspiring an increased hostility from the creepy giant monster warriors who guard the maze, the past starts to come back, and it turns out to be a familiar, even mundane explanation for things as details are revealed. It's a shame, because I feel like the energy is right here. How much an audience is willing to overlook the familiar is going to come down to how engaged they are with these particular details. I think it's a better movie than “Divergent,” and I buy this world more than that one, but I think it's just a matter of degrees one way or another.
Will Poulter is making a great transition from being a promising kid actor (his “Son Of Rambow” performance is a thing of beauty) to a genuinely interesting adult, and Scodelario is just as interesting to watch here as she has been since her introduction in the original UK version of “Skins.” She's more of a story device than a real character, though, so much of what makes her interesting is that natural gravitas that Scodelario has in everything. Clearly Dylan O'Brien is the young star-in-the-making who shoulders the most weight here, and he seems like a capable performer. This is a largely physical role, and he throws himself into it with an aggression that helps sell the reality of the world.
The Grievers, the main bad guys in the movie, are well-designed and they feel like a real threat during the maze sequences and then later as things escalate. Ball's able to make even the most ridiculous of the ideas in the last half-hour or so work visually, and in the film's best moments, he shows some real promise as a large-scale action director. There are some answers to the various mysteries offered here, but they are all designed to set up the next movie, which is already in pre-production with the same cast and the same filmmakers, and the ending of the movie might as well have a big question mark over “THE END” because of just how hard they lean on the idea of a next movie. I have trouble calling something a complete experience when the ending is this rigorously calculated.
There's a confidence to that decision, and certainly Fox knows that they've made a solid, respectable adventure movie that should work well for the intended audience. I just wish it didn't feel like it had been made with a checklist open next to it, each box ticked, because storytelling should always trump franchise management, no matter how nimble.
“The Maze Runner” opens in theaters everywhere on Friday.