Almost a full year before The Hunger Games hit bookshelves, a Lord of the Flies-esque novel by James Dashner turned heads in the young adult section. The Maze Runner, though, lost the race to the big screen by more than two years (and also arrives far behind Divergent, The Host, Ender’s Game, and plenty of other similar, teen-driven flicks), so it unfairly falls victim to the inevitable claims that it’s just another Hunger Games ripoff.

Had The Maze Runner arrived years ago, it would have been hailed as a wholly unique and interesting story, and the fact that its movie version is so late to the party doesn’t diminish its effectiveness. Even though it’s not quite up to the bar set by Katniss and her friends in Panem, The Maze Runner does accomplish exactly what it sets out to do— it keeps you interested and makes you buy into the inevitable multi-film franchise. Check and check.

Before you even see a frame of the movie, Runner is already drawing us in. The industrial clanks and whirs of a freight elevator are all we hear, before we finally get a glimpse of Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) getting dumped, with no memory or clue about his identity, into an open field with a group of other teen boys. Surrounding the field (“The Glade”, they call it) are towering stone slabs that make up the walls of a maze. The kids (“Gladers”, they call themselves) have been there for three years. Every month, another different boy (“Greenie”, they call him) comes up the same elevator with a stash of supplies. No one knows why.

Every morning, the slabs open for a few hours, allowing a select group of the kids (“Runners”, they call them) to scout the maze, looking for a way out. But then the slabs close again, and if any of the boys haven’t make it back in time, they inevitably die from the sting of large, robot-like, spider bugs (“Grievers”, they call them). After someone gets stung, though, he actually has a few minutes of memory recall (“The Changing”, they call it) where he gets small hints about what might be going on.

Thomas, like Katniss Everdeen after him, is the fly in the ointment, and he sets off a chain reaction of events that gets the runners further into the maze than ever before but also brings all kinds of turmoil and angst to the Glade.

I had thought, going in (having not read the book), that the success of The Maze Runner would hinge on the payoff—the moment when we’re finally told exactly what’s going on. Fortunately, though, by the time it arrives in the form of a horribly misguided two-minute cameo monologue by Patricia Clarkson, we’ve already experienced a solid 90 minutes of breakneck film-making by first-time director Wes Ball, and the anti-climactic payoff doesn’t matter as much.

Ball keeps the tension ratcheted up from start to finish (minus that silly two-minute speech), and even though he sometimes relies a little too heavily on gimmicks like the ol’ shaky-cam, there’s no denying that The Maze Runner will get your adrenaline going.

It might not be as smart or complex as The Hunger Games (and, yes, the fictional jargon gets tedious), but The Maze Runner stands just fine on its own. And that it couldn’t have possibly ended with a more overt set-up for a sequel? Or two? All the better.

4/5 stars