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The Maze Runner: Another weekend, another failed YA adaptation.

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Young-Adult (YA) fiction is intended to appeal to the all-important demographic of teenagers. That's why the big budget motion picture adaptations of YA books, which satisfy the MPAA ratings board, are popular in Hollywood. James Dashner's novel The Maze Runner has all of these qualities, and that is why it is appearing now in your multiplex.

The plot concerns beautiful, young male amnesiacs who wake up in a green valley in the center of an artificial maze patrolled by digital monsters. They must work together to find out why they have been put there. Our hero Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) wakes up and remembers nothing except being vaguely medically experimented on. He finds himself in a Lord of the Flies/Lost/Cube pastiche beneath giant walls that move every night, shifted by clockwork gears. The first 30 minutes of the movie involve characters with nice cheekbones and form-fitting monochromatic Polo shirts lightly layered with a patina of dirt explaining the world to Thomas in short, declarative sentences. There are numerous terms such as Gladers/Grievers/Greenies to learn, but the exposition never coalesces into characters beyond a standard hero and hero enablers. The parade of young men either adds to the continual exposition ("No one's ever survived a night in the maze." "No one's ever killed a Griever before.") or assist Thomas' ascension to group leader. The bully Gally (Will Poulter), with only a few extras at his back, presents a very weak argument for conformity to the rules set up by the camp.

The monsters are spiders with mechanical legs and green Rancor faces. The action setpieces mostly consist of digital walls or creatures moving and a loud score telegraphing foreboding or fright. Since most of the PG-13-friendly violence is just a character being pulled off into the dark while screaming, this works.

A good thing about one of this film's science fiction forebears, the 2000 adaptation of Battle Royale, was the sense of a random assortment of teenagers being killed off in a variety of ways, which mimicked the randomness of violence and group behavior. I thought The Hunger Games was too bland and PG-13 for a movie about the young dying horribly, but The Maze Runner is much more so.

My memory of teenagers is that they can be rude, cliquish, and severe. But this group's nicknames for everything are portentous and vague (i.e., the Changing, the Glade) where they should be rudely scatological so as to better rob frightening things of their power. It rings true when they ostracize sick members, but otherwise the screen version of the novel, which I have not read, never does more than move itself forward. Exposition about the Glade gives way to exposition about the Maze, which gives way to unsatisfying exposition delivered by Patricia Clarkson in a lab coat in what passes for an ending. Then the short declarative sentences switch to being about the sequel, which I must admit looks somewhat intriguing. But you don't go on a rollercoaster to learn why the rollercoaster was made.

If the film is about anything, it is about how tough it is for Thomas to exhibit intellectual curiosity about the group's environment, and overcome socialized stagnation to lead it out of the maze. But Thomas is a Mary Sue, an audience (or at least a writer) surrogate instead of a character. Most everything comes easy for him, so that the audience identifies with and cheers him on as he overcomes each obstacle. But this works to undermine the film's theme. When I fail to be curious about my immediate surroundings, it's not because I'm a bully obsessed with rules. When I am curious and learn about the world, it's not because I'm the chosen one. The pressures of appealing to millions of people remove the detail from this work, which may have been present in the book; all that remains is a dutiful labyrinth. What would be surprising and honest would be for the hero to never remove himself from it.


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