Big themes and adventure collide in a surprisingly good YA dystopian adaptation. 

The premise of The Maze Runner is appealing in its simplicity: a boy wakes up in a caged elevator, being lifted into an idyllic glade populated only by other boys. The glade is surrounded by a very tall wall, and that wall has one opening. Beyond the wall is a vast maze, and the doors to that maze close every night. Being trapped within the maze overnight is a sure death sentence. None of the boys remember who they were before they came to the glade, they don’t know why they’re there and every day they send out runners to explore the maze, hoping to find their way out of their verdant prison. It’s almost a Twilight Zone premise, one that allows The Maze Runner the opportunity to explore, in the sketchiest of strokes, how we deal with being trapped in the glade of modern life.

Based on a novel by James Dashner, The Maze Runner shares some DNA with previous Young Adult adaptations, but largely goes its own way. The tribal community of the glade reminds us of Lord of the Flies more than The Hunger Games, and the film’s only female character is never the center of a Twilight-like love triangle. The Maze Runner hews closer to standard boy’s adventure tropes than anything else, and it does so in a way that feels fresh, fun and surprisingly dangerous.

Dylan O’Brien, a hunk on the unlikely MTV hit Teen Wolf, is Thomas, the latest boy lifted into the glade. He finds a small society has formed, that the days of Piggy and the conch are behind this community. But Thomas isn’t ready to just relax into the glade’s daily life - he is proactive and begins making waves immediately. O’Brien brings a dark intensity to the character, giving Thomas the motivated sense of purpose that I like so much in Katniss.

He’s surrounded by a nicely multicultural cast that includes Alm Ameen as Alby, the leader of the gladers. O’Brien’s the hero, but Ameen has the presence of The Lead, a charismatic and capable young man who makes you believe he created the community around him through pluck, politicking and maybe a little bit of violence. Ameen feels like a legitimate find, although he may be familiar to British TV viewers. For me he was a revelation - get ready to start your latest round of Black Panther fancasting.

The rest of the cast is strong as well; Will Poulter, from Son of Rambo, is Gally, the homeland security-minded glader. Poulter’s given a role that could be a stock heavy, but he brings a sense of vulnerability that allows you to understand why Gally’s such a hardliner. Ki Hong Lee is Minho, the veteran runner who is impressed by Thomas’ pluck, and he’s another face that’s new to me but that I suspect will be much more present in the future. Game of Thrones’ Thomas Brodie-Sangster brings the same sort of supportive pal work he did with Jojeen Reed to the role of Newt; this is the kind of role that could be irritating, but Brodie-Sangster is impossibly ingratiating.

There’s only one woman in the glade, and when she shows up it’s clear things are going badly for the boys (perhaps we can dig into the metaphorical aspects of that after the film’s release). Kaya Scodelario struggles with her accent, but she’s unable to struggle much with the script, which gives her almost literally nothing to do. Her presence probably pays off in future instalments (The Maze Runner is the first in a series, of course), but in this film she’s just hanging around, almost dead weight. I wish that the script, credited to Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers and T.S. Nowlin, had found a space for the Teresa character to do absolutely anything of meaning whatsoever.

Wes Ball makes his feature directorial debut with The Maze Runner, and he hits the ground running. He leaves space for the actors to find the characters while also maintaining a pace that propels everything along into the larger mystery of just what the glade is. I like the way the film posits large questions about life and society using this microcosm, and I like the way that those questions get thornier as Thomas earns the trust of Alby and discovers hidden truths about the nature of life in the glade.

Ball juggles his tones well; there’s a sense of camaraderie and friendship among the boys, and that offers some lighter moments, but he also keeps the heavier scifi mystery stuff ever present. The pace of the reveals reminded of the best seasons of Lost, where each new discovery opened up three more exciting mysteries. There’s weight to this world, and the film isn’t afraid to kill off the kids as the security of the glade collapses and they’re finally forced into action.

There’s exciting adventure, sprinkled with action, at the heart of The Maze Runner; it’s a big idea scifi movie that just happens to have hunky young men as the leads. Whether its final reveals are effective is hard to say because the finale feels too much like the set-up for the next film and not enough like the resolution of this film, but I like the balls the movie shows right at the end. Not every kid introduced in the glade makes it through to the other side of the film, and some of their deaths are actually brutal. There’s one sequence, where biomechanical spider monsters known as Grievers run amok in the glade and it’s actually kind of awesomely destructive and scary. The film’s budget hobbles it in some of these sequences - Ball insists on shooting his Grievers like he has $200 million in his pockets, and his FX are just not up to that scrutiny - but the intensity of emotion and action carry it.

The Maze Runner benefits from excellent casting and a smart focus on themes; it’s not close to dislodging The Hunger Games from the position of ‘Most astonishingly good YA adaptation,’ but it’s taking a swing. I like the film’s ambition, the way it takes itself seriously without being a drag and the general weirdness that’s only hinted at as the movie ends. I could return to this world.