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The Maze Runner

(2014) ** 1/2 Pg-13
113 min. 20th Century Fox. Director: Wes Ball. Cast: Will Poulter, Dylan O'Brien, Aml Ameen, Kaya Scodelario.

/content/films/4724/1.jpgArgentinian author Jorge Luis Borges once wrote, “There is no need to build a labyrinth when the entire universe is one.” To the extent that the new YA-derived dystopian science-fction actioner The Maze Runner is about anything, it's about this: being thrust into a baffling and frustrating life.

As allegory, James Dashner's The Maze Runner perhaps best reflects puberty, in that its young characters, literally orphaned, compare to an audience of teens that have largely cut off parents from their inner lives just when they could most use some guidance from those who made it out of the pubescent maze and lived to tell the tale. Wes Ball's film begins with young Thomas (Dylan O'Brien of MTV's Teen Wolf) gasping into consciousness in an ascending elevator, a cold-comfort womb that expels him into a dangerous new world.

This world is "the Glade," a semi-wooded clearing ringed by giant concrete blocks (the titular maze). The amnesiac Thomas, just the latest "greenie" to wind up in the Glade, finds himself in a society with rigorous rules (misbehave or freak out, and you'll find yourself in "the Box"), designs for survival maintenance, and a creeping hopelessness about ever finding their way through the maze and out to freedom. Still, those sent in to try are the chosen ones, "maze runners" who risk their lives on nightly excursions to map the maze.

This world of constant tests on human lab rats certainly resembles its Hollywood pitch ("Lord of the Flies meets Lost"), especially in the fraught dynamic between the hot-headed Gally (Will Poulter of We're the Millers) and the shrewd Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster of Game of Thrones). The "Tiger Beat"-friendly cast also includes Kaya Scodelario as a girl from Thomas' cloudy past, Aml Ameen as the Glade's eldest veteran, and Ki Hong Lee as the runner to whom Thomas proves his bona fides.

The Maze Runner functions best when it's on the move. Ball has the knack for drumming up intensity, especially in the close-scrape maze scenes involving those shifting, vine-covered blocks and some mortally nasty cyborg guardians that will no doubt fuel some nightmares for younger viewers. Much of The Maze Runner, though, amounts to portentous conversation and clunky exposition, the latter required to put across what was once novelistic narration.

O'Brien's grounded performance helpfully makes for resonant rooting interest, and as long as The Maze Runner is convincingly adventure-driven, it's compelling enough, right up to the open door that's an exit to this movie and an entrance to the already-promised sequel. One could wish the picture were less thematically anemic (arriving as it does at a halfhearted question of what constitutes justifiable means to societal ends), but there's something to be said for the nifty concept and pure adrenaline, when it kicks in.

[Cinematic adventurers may wish to get in on the ground floor of the pilot venture "Escape," Barco's proprietary new exhibition format—developed in close collaboration with 20th Century Fox—that uses CGI to digitally ape Cinerama. With a screen at either side of the film image, specially rendered footage teases your peripheral vision for seven minutes of the film's action. This first commercial install at the Century 20 in downtown Redwood City precedes a planned nationwide roll-out. For my money, the format's still more of a distraction than an enhancement, but use of real film footage instead of video-gamy CGI could make "Escape" a worthwhile return to the appeal of Cinerama.]

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