Fifteen years ago, if you went to see the hot new teen film, it was probably a knockabout sex comedy wherein some bloke tries to lose his virginity despite the witless bumblings of his friends and the secret love of his best gal pal. These days, most movie teenagers seem to face a post-apocalyptic wilderness where bumbling friends can get you killed and there’s no time for love or sex. In the devastated wake of The Hunger Games comes this adaptation of James Dashner’s bleak novel, a well made but sometimes hollow attempt to launch another apocalypteen franchise.
Our hero is the improbably handsome Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), who comes to consciousness in a large lift with no memory of even his name. That much comes back shortly after arriving in the Glade, a rural refuge surrounded by a towering metal maze, full of moving walls and terrifying unseen beasts. Living with him are 30 or so boys who scratch a living from the open land and the supplies that accompany each new arrival, forged into a rough society by their dread of what lies beyond the walls. It’s an interesting premise with more than a hint of The Lord Of The Flies about it, a sense cemented when the blustering Gally (Will Poulter) challenges the newcomer to fight before a baying mob as night
falls and torches are lit.
But no sooner are such interesting group dynamics established than they are brushed aside in favour of the plot. Each day the boys dispatch their bravest and fastest to explore the maze and find an exit, and their society is thrown into turmoil when the lift delivers a girl, Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), into their midst. Changes in the behaviour of the maze and its monsters suggest that time is running out — at least to Thomas, who’s soon clashing heads with Gally again even as he performs heroics that make escape from the maze seem, for the first time, possible.
It’s all stylishly shot by debutant director Wes Ball, who snatches spare moments between scares and action scenes to give a sense of the Glade environment or build a character like Thomas Brodie Sangster’s Newt or Blake Cooper’s Chuck. But in the second half, things fall apart as the action picks up; the puzzle-solving element to the maze is played well, but the monsters, once they finally appear, are a sometimes unconvincing cross between The Host’s slimy river monster and a Wild Wild West-style robot spider. They are effectively terrifying though, with a sting that induces a sort of psychosis to add to their fearsome armour of machine parts and sharp teeth, and there is a surprisingly high body count as the pace builds towards the end.
Worst of all, the film can only offer an unsatisfactory conclusion to the mystery at its own heart. That means Thomas and Teresa, in particular, can never progress beyond blandly heroic cyphers, because their characters remain opaque, even to themselves. Like Divergent earlier this year, the full explanation for the premise is a vital plot point in a sequel, so the riddle at the heart of this maze only leads to more riddles.