The inspiration for and the aspirations of the Baton Rouge-shot “The Maze Runner” are so simple and so transparent that both can be summed up in but three words: The Hunger Games.
Like that dystopian pop-culture sensation, director Wes Ball’s “Maze Runner” is based on a young-adult book series about teens who are plopped down in violent, life-or-death trials engineered by adults boasting white duds and dark intentions. Likewise, both are none too shy about leaving key questions unanswered as they shamelessly set up their next chapter.
But while Ball’s film might be hopelessly derivative — being as indebted to “Lord of the Flies” every bit as much as it is to “The Hunger Games” — it’s also both intense and entertaining enough to leave audiences hungry for the inevitable sequel so clearly set up by its cliffhanger ending.
The emphasis there should be on the word “intense.” Ball, a former visual-effects specialist making his feature directing debut here, shows a keen instinct when it comes to balancing action and exposition. The result is an edge-of-your-seat film that rarely lags for stretches and that — given Ball’s VFX background — does a solid job of world-creation.
In fact, parents should be warned that it might be a little too intense for younger viewers. “The Maze Runner” is rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, including some disturbing images.” It earns every bit of that rating.
No, it doesn’t include kid-on-kid violence, like “The Hunger Games” did. The dreadful deeds here are committed mostly by giant biomechanical spider-things called “grievers” that wander the titular maze imprisoning the film’s teen cast. But those grievers are plenty scary enough to work their way into the nightmares of sensitive viewers, as is a jarring suicide scene in the film’s third act that tests the MPAA’s ratings limits.
For older kids, though — and for many parents looking for a bit of fantasy escapism — “The Maze Runner” stands to be a largely enjoyable thrill ride.
It all gets off to a fast start, with a teenage boy named Thomas — played nicely by Dylan O’Brien (MTV’s “Teen Wolf”) — waking up in a “Survivor”-style community of other teen boys but with no memory of who he is or how he got there. That’s not the worst part of it, though.
As his new tribemates inform him, they’re all trapped there — some have been for years — hemmed in by an enormous, ever-shifting maze surrounding them. What’s more, every morning at sunup, the massive stone doors to the maze slide open, inviting the tribe’s braver “runners” to plunge in and scramble to find an escape route. Every evening at sundown, those same doors also slam shut, leaving anyone left inside to contend with those beastly nocturnal grievers.
Needless to say, no one has ever spent a night in the maze and lived to tell of it.
Thomas, however, is different. His uncommon curiosity and admirable grit make him an inspiration to many of his fellow tribemates, as he leads them ever closer to finding a way out. Unfortunately, he’s also seen as a threat by others — as is the arrival of a girl (gasp!) clutching a mysterious note soon after Thomas shows up
Needless to say, Thomas and his tribemates have all sorts of questions: Why are they here? Is there a way out? Who are they? What’s with this girl and her cryptic note? What’s it all about, Alfie?
Audiences will be asking the same questions, and while Ball and company — with help from Patricia Clarkson as one of the film’s few adult cast members — provide hints as to some of the bigger answers, they leave more than enough up in the air for the sequel. That makes for an ending that is both frustrating and tantalizing all at once.
The biggest unanswered question for “The Maze Runner” is whether it can come even close to the box-office success of the “Hunger Games” franchise, which — just two films into its four-film run — has earned $1.5 billion in global box-office receipts.
The answer, of course, is that it’s not likely. That kind of lightning-in-a-bottle isn’t easy to catch, particularly when a film goes so far out of its way to check off all the boxes on the established formula, as Ball’s does. As evidence, one only needs look at the genre’s other recent coattail-riders, which range from the decent “Ender’s Game” to the middling “Divergent” to the pretty awful “The Host.”
Still, one has to think “The Maze Runner” has a better shot than most of those dystopian teen tales in capturing at least a sliver of the success of “The Hunger Games.” That’s primarily because its appealing young cast — which includes Will Poulter (“We’re the Millers”) and Thomas Brodie-Sangster (“Game of Thrones”) — as well as Ball’s nice sense of pacing make for a better film than most of its fellow “Hunger Games” wannabes.
That’s not to say “The Maze Runner” can be expected to beat the record-breaking “Hunger Games” at its own game. But don’t be surprised if it makes a run at a modestly successful box-office stand of its own.