Cinema's future continues to look bleak as the latest post-apocalyptic action thriller, The Maze Runner, follows in the dark footsteps of such franchises as The Hunger Games and Divergent. Despite similar themes of life and death set against the backdrop of an oppressive regime, the industry is not yet ready to call time on its spate of adolescents-in-peril movies.
Wes Ball makes an impressive directorial debut with The Maze Runner, and describes his film as "a little like Lord of the Flies meets Lost. These boys had to build their world and create their own rules."
• Read more: Our review of The Maze Runner
But do we really need another big screen adaptation of a YA series of novels?
Ball insists, "The Maze Runner is not a kid's story. We wanted to make sure that the audience feels treated like adults, like mature people. There are kids in it, but this is a serious gritty movie and we are not pandering to anyone."
One marked difference between this film and others in the genre is that The Maze Runner skews firmly towards a male audience, where the likes of The Hunger Games and Divergent offered adored female heroines in the shape of Jennifer Lawrence and Shailene Woodley respectively.
Producer Wyck Godfrey weighs in. "I've spent the last five years doing 'girl' films. I have three sons who have constantly kept me down, saying, 'Dad, those Twilight movies are so lame.' They were reading the Maze Runner book series and my 13-year-old said, 'You have to read this.' And the appeal was obvious. I spent most of my childhood in the woods, battling monsters and building fortresses, and that's what these kids are doing. It was before the iPhone became our digital leash."
Based on the first 2009 novel from James Dashner's best-selling trilogy, the story centres on a hero, played by Dylan O'Brien (Teen Wolf), who wakes up minus his memory but with a group of other teenage boys imprisoned in an ever-changing maze of walls from which there is little chance of escaping.
Says O'Brien, "You are with me throughout the whole movie. When I wake up in a cage and I can't remember anything about my life, the audience wakes up with me, too. I also liked that it's a coming-of-age story and that's a fun arc for an actor."
Shot primarily in Louisiana on a modest budget of US$30 million ($37 million), the finished film looks easily as expensive as its esteemed big-budget predecessors, a testament to Ball's skill and his evidently useful background in special effects. "Movies are too expensive right now and I think there's a lot of waste," he says. "As a first-time director, I told the studio [Fox] not to give me a giant budget. I knew I could bring the cost down, so that's my mantra now. You can make big movies for a reasonable price. It doesn't have to bring in US$400 million on the first weekend of release just to break even."
The Maze Runner opened in the US with a very respectable US$32.5 million and will likely become the franchise all concerned were angling for.
Confident as he appears in person, Ball admits the job was a huge responsibility which he faced with some trepidation. "It's pressure, that's true, but 90 per cent of my job is in the casting and I really lucked out with these guys."
The cast is composed of marginally known British actors including: Will Poulter (We're The Millers), Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Game of Thrones) as well as Kaya Scodelario (Skins) and New York-born Dylan O'Brien. Ball says, "We focused on good actors, not pretty faces."
Poulter says of joining the cast, "There are a lot of films in the young adult dystopian bracket but I felt like Maze Runner took a fresh approach. Of course, there's a lead male as opposed to a lead female, plus it has its own identity, and unlike the others it's not a film about competition or pitting people against each other. It's about brotherhood and camaraderie, togetherness. It's far more mysterious and ambiguous than its contemporaries so it was a natural attraction for me."
The most recognisable face, Brodie-Sangster, offers, "I was apprehensive about working with a first-time director but I saw his short film, Ruin, which was absolutely fantastic so I knew he could handle the special effects. And then he explained that this is a group of normal guys who have a kind of love for each other without it being seen as a weakness but actually, a strength. That kind of thing is not shown enough today."
With such a glut of dark subject matter aimed at kids, is Hollywood forcing today's younger demographic to grow up too fast? Says Ball, "When I was a kid, I was way more mature than I was given credit for and I think with movies like Maze Runner, we are giving them what they feel they can take."
What: The Maze Runner
When: At cinemas from today