Is there room at the multiplex for yet another entry in the young adult/dystopia/survival genre? Those who hunger for more could do worse than “The Maze Runner,” based on the first book in James Dashner’s trilogy.
We’re plunged right into the action along with Thomas (the appealing Dylan O’Brien), who wakes up sans memory in a roaring freight elevator. It deposits him in the Glade, a seemingly bucolic settlement populated by boys who have arrived there in the same manner and have turned the place into a melding of Outward Bound and “Lord of the Flies,” with echoes of “Lost.”
He’s quickly indoctrinated by a trio of helpful mates: spiritual leader Alby (Aml Ameen), cheeky Brit Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster, the lovesick kid from “Love Actually”) and the cherubic Chuck (Blake Cooper, channeling a young Jonah Hill). The upshot: He’ll soon remember his name, but nothing else; a new boy, plus supplies, arrives every month; and above all, he mustn’t go into the maze.
This labyrinth is a monolithic edifice that encloses the little encampment like a nightmare version of the skyscrapers around Central Park. Every morning it opens up, allowing specially designated “runners” to explore and map its contours, looking for a way out — but those contours change daily. And woe to the runner who is trapped overnight; none has ever survived an attack by the Grievers, the giant half spider/half erector sets that emerge after dark. Their sting revives memory, but also induces madness and death.
It’s soon obvious to all that Thomas is different. He’s curious, brave and outspoken about what actions the group should take. This earns him the enmity of the Gladers’ self-appointed leader, Gally (Will Poulter), who we know is mean because of his eyebrows. And sure enough, he tries to turn the rest of the boys against Thomas even after the new kid manages to kill one of the Grievers, opening up new possibilities for escape.
More trouble for Thomas arrives in the form of Teresa (Kaya Scoledario), the first girl sent to the Glade. She seems to know him, and they discover they have the same shared visions of a mysterious laboratory. This cements in Gally’s mind — and maybe even Thomas’ — that he is the cause of all the Gladers’ newfound troubles.
“The Maze Runner” offers nothing particularly innovative, and some characters, particularly Gally and Teresa (who has little to do other than open her eyes wide and ask “What does it mean?”), border on caricature. But the setting is ominously beautiful, and the themes of leadership and loyalty are deftly mined.
No film of the second book, “The Scorch Trials,” has been announced; but as Patricia Clarkson, leader of a Dharma Initiative-like corporation called W.C.K.D. (say it out loud) declares in the closing minutes, it’s time for “Phase Two.” Stay tuned.