In a glade in the middle of a forest, three dozen youths have built themselves a subsidence society governed by simple rules of community and security. Everybody works together, nobody harms another and nobody leaves – unless they have been selected as one of the elite runners whose quest is to map the towering concrete maze that surrounds their peaceful glade, keeping the boys prisoner.
Thomas wakes up one day to find that a freight elevator has somehow deposited him in this rather timid apocalyptic sci-fi tale adapted from the young adult novel by James Dashner. The story clearly harkens back to dystopian classics such as Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm, but contemporary viewers will probably judge it only as a less sexy version of The Hunger Games.
The striving Thomas, played with painful earnestness by Dylan O'Brien, is only a "greenie" – a new one appears from the elevator shaft each month – but he quickly proves himself willing to run into the maze and tangle with the murderous "grievers" who patrol it. (They are – shades of Harry Potter – gigantic robotic spiders.) Thomas's intuition that the glade is not a condition to be endured but rather a test to be conquered disrupts this little society, pitting him against the bullying enforcer Gally (a more impressive Will Poulter in the easier role of being nasty rather than heroic).
The premise seems both smart and intriguing, but the film directed by Wes Ball bears many of the cruder markings of YA fiction. The dialogue is stuffed with bald exposition and zippy one-liners, while the characters are types lifted from the pages of The Boys' Own Annual including not only our hero Thomas but also a wise leader, a smart kid and a chubby sidekick. These youths are surprisingly free of any sexual instincts, and the lone female figure (the girl played by Kaya Scodelario, whose appearance further disrupts the glade) is a token who barely participates in the action.
And, of course, there's that surprising ending that sets us up nicely for the inevitable sequel.