The star of The Maze Runner is the maze: a giant structure that towers over the boys trapped at the center of it. It's such a cool concept, you can see why the book was so popular. But the movie, while fun, doesn't quite do justice to this megastructure-driven story. Spoilers ahead...
In The Maze Runner, a kid named Thomas (Dylan O'Brien from Teen Wolf) wakes up with no memories except for (eventually) his own name. He soon finds that he's the latest arrival in a community of boys who live in the Glade, a somewhat idyllic green space. Every day, the doors to a giant maze open and some of the boys, the "runners," go inside to map out the structure, which changes shape every night. But there are monsters inside the maze, called the Grievers. And soon enough a girl named Teresa arrives, and she seems to know Thomas.
What makes the book so addictive is the immersiveness of this world — author James Dashner spends a decent amount of time acclimating you in the society these boys have built in the Glade, and slowly building up the mysteries of the maze and the Creators, who have trapped the boys here and given them amnesia. The maze itself, in Dashner's book, is a puzzle that slowly gives up its secrets.
The film, meanwhile, sacrifices a lot of Dashner's fascinating details in the name of creating a zippy, fast-paced adventure story. And that's totally understandable, up to a point — you only have a couple hours to tell a story, and stuff has to be streamlined. But in changing Dashner's tale from a mystery story to a rollicking adventure story, the movie loses the heart of what made the book work.
Without going into too much spoilery detail, there are some changes in the film version that make the solution to the maze a lot simpler, and thus makes most of the characters seem a bit less resourceful and interesting. At the same time, some of the flaws that you could forgive in the book because of the immersive worldbuilding (like a too-perfect hero, and the implausibility of someone building this ginormous maze just to put a few dozen kids through heck, and the twist ending) become more glaring in the film.
And that's probably the main problem here: young-adult books are exploring some pretty weird territory about growing up and figuring out the mysteries of the crazy world that adults built before kids even got here. The maze, in Dashner's book, feels like a representation of the absent adults, asking questions the kids don't even know how to interpret, much less answer. It's not quite your typical dystopia, or boys' adventure story — but the movie seems to want to jam this story into the shape of a typical hero-adventure tale, with just a tinge of Divergent and Brave New World to it.
And I suspect that teen-adventure stories will never be as popular at the movies as they are in bookstores, until we get more movies that really capture that feeling of implacability, and horror of being trapped by adults and their nonsense rules. The sense of struggling to be yourself in a world that's trying to rob you of any identity, and society that trapped outcasts build together, is at the heart of the Maze Runner story, and it doesn't entirely come through here.
On the plus side, the visuals are absolutely perfect — the actual maze is beautifully rendered and looms over the characters in much the same way that the Wall in Game of Thrones does. First-time director Wes Ball also keeps juxtaposing claustrophobic shots of the crawlspaces, cage and pit where the characters get stuck with big long shots that show how massive the thing that traps them is. In terms of the visceral sense of this maze's hugeness and scariness, the movie is an improvement on the book.
And there are some genuinely scary, tense moments — Ball packs in a lot of jump-scares, including scenes where the startling presence turns out to be just another kid approaching. But when the movie ramps up to revealing the Grievers in their full ferocity, they have a lot of nasty Alien-esque mojo going on.
Also, O'Brien is an engaging presence, with a seemingly limitless capacity for nervy bravery. He's one of the main reasons to watch Teen Wolf, and he does a pretty good job of taking on the Logan Lerman/Josh Hutcherson role of the plucky guy who's out of his depth but making the best of things.
So yeah, Maze Runner is a pretty fun, zippy action-adventure movie that compares pretty favorably to the Percy Jackson and Journey 3D films.
At the same time, this film feels like nothing special — largely because there's just not enough maze in the Maze Runner movie. The maze, which should be fascinating and perplexing, feels like an onion with too few layers. The result is a film that could just as easily be called The Road Runner.