THE MAZE RUNNER (PG)
Sci-fi adventure/113 minutes/Opens today
The story: Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) wakes up in the Glade, with no idea of who he is or how he ended up there. The Glade is a plot of grassland and forest contained by high concrete walls with a resident population of young men, all of whom arrived one by one, with memories erased. As Thomas gets acquainted with Gladers such as Gally (Will Poulter), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Minho (Ki Hong Lee), he learns about the maze that lies beyond the walls and danger that lurks there.
It is a horribly patronising thing to say. But this film, based on a best-selling young-adult novel, works so well because the story comes without the traits that viewers have come to associate with young-adult fiction.
For one thing, it is an ensemble piece. Yes, Thomas is the hero here, but that fact does not rob the other characters of interesting backgrounds or as much of a background that is possible given that everyone here is an amnesiac.
In too many young-adult works, there is the movie-star lead, with supporting characters as one-trait props: the enigmatic dreamboat, the bully-antagonist, the sassy friend, the weak pal marked for death in the third act (see this year's Divergent and others).
Here, the cast also feel properly multiracial and multicultural, in accordance with what a globalised future world should look like. In other young-adult dystopias, everyone looks and talks as if they had just emerged from a Los Angeles high school in a nice neighbourhood.
The story structure here is tailor-made for exposition, a bonus to those who have not read the book series. As Thomas is new to the Glade and has no memories, the audience learns how the culture works at the same time he does, a gift to first-time feature director Wes Ball, and one he does not waste.
Putting a first-time director in charge of a big-budget can't-miss franchise movie, working with a cast of unknown actors, is usually a sign of tight studio control but, in this case, that strategy has paid off.
The result is an old-fashioned boys' own science-fiction adventure, influenced by classic survival tales such as Robinson Crusoe and stories of children's societies formed after adults are gone.
The film, and presumably the novels on which it is based, steals from the best.
Thankfully absent is the weakest aspect of too many young-adult stories, in which the protagonist frets over who loves her, with whom she is in love with and the mind games that result.
This is not a slam against target-audience pandering in the genre - that exists in genres catering to both sexes - but against how inauthentically and cynically young romance is portrayed in young-adult franchises. Better to leave it out than to treat it as padding, or in insincere music-video segments stuffed into random spots in the story.
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