The Maze Runner is an existential horror story that mixes the fraternal feuding of Lord of the Flies with the giant tentacled menace of 1950s sci-fi monster movies such as Tarantula, with the Kafka-esque social order of the 1960s cult series The Prisoner, with the garbage-compactor scene from the first Star Wars.


Multiply that last one - two giant slabs of concrete closing in on Luke Skywalker and crew - a few thousand times: The band of boys who live inside a big encampment in The Maze Runner, their memories erased, their purpose unknown, are ringed by towering walls that shift and clang with ominous authority. Try to escape and the rumbling ramparts close in and crush you. It's a mega-maze, controlled by some mysterious force. What gives?

What gives is the first installment of James Dashner's bestselling young adult book series, transplanted to the screen with a surprising commitment to creep audiences out. It's dark, it's scary, bad stuff happens.

It all begins with a teenager, Dylan O'Brien (Stiles Stilinski of TV's Teen Wolf), waking up in a rattling elevator cage ascending from the darkness into . . . into a place called the Glade.

There are dozens of other kids here, all male, clustered in groups and carrying out chores. It's a commune, or a concentration camp, with a strict set of rules and a self-appointed leader, Gally (Will Poulter), who takes an immediate dislike to the newcomer. Supplies are delivered by that elevator, and once a month, a new boy arrives, too. Where they come from, and why they are here, is anybody's guess.

When "the greenie" decides to join the runners trying to solve the puzzle that is the maze - dashing out through gates that open every morning and close again every night - Gally and the new kid, whose name, we (and he) discover, is Thomas, turn rivals. Gally feels threatened, Thomas feels like he has a mission.

"You are not like the others - you're curious," one of the meek ones tells him.

Out there in the maze, the Grievers scuttle around - no, not an alt-country band, but hungry, humongous arachnoid-like creatures that make sure any runner who doesn't get back to the Glade by nightfall will be done with. Dinner. Dead.

The Maze Runner shares gloomy post-apocalyptic themes with other YA books and films: youth trapped in a claustrophobic, controlling society; an environment that's hostile to humanity because humanity was hostile to it; rebellion; rabble-rousing, and Big Brotherdom (usually represented by an elder thespian of some repute, in this case a preposterous Patricia Clarkson). It's bleak business, and as it hurries toward its explosive, expository conclusion, the film becomes nonsensical, too.

But never mind. Wes Ball, a visual-effects specialist making his directing debut, has made Thomas and company's future clear enough: Given decent box office, they're heading straight for Franchiseville.

The Maze Runner **1/2 (Out of four stars)

Directed by Wes Ball. With Dylan O'Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Will Poulter, Patricia Clarkson. Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox.

Running time: 1 hour, 53 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, adult themes).

Playing at: area theaters.EndText