THE SCORCH TRIALS
2015, PG-13, 130 mins.
2015, PG-13, 130 mins.
Dylan O'Brien as Thomas / Thomas Brodie Sangster as Newt / Kaya Scodelario as Teresa / Ki Hong Lee as Minho / Giancarlo Esposito as Jorge / Aidan Gillen as Janson / Patricia Clarkson as Ava Paige / Lili Taylor as Mary Cooper
Directed by Wes Ball / Written by T.S. Nowlin, based on the book by James Dashner
I’m going to come off as slightly hypocritical in my review of – to quote its full title – MAZE RUNNER: THE SCORCH TRIALS.
On one hand,
I’ve often bemoaned the countless number of mediocre movie sequels that
have come out over the years that just slavishly regurgitate the
storylines and themes of their antecedents and never fully take the
characters down new narrative paths.
I also loathe sequels that are – aesthetically speaking – exactly
like their predecessors. THE
SCORCH TRIALS – as a follow-up to 2014’s genuinely solid THE
MAZE RUNNER, based in turn on the first in a series of young adult
books by James Dashner – is a sequel that looks and feels nothing like
the first film in the series. Part
of the paradoxical problem, though, is that THE SCORCH TRIALS looks and
feels nothing like THE MAZE RUNNER, which is to its ultimate detriment.
Seeing as I’ve
been inundated with middling to awful YA novel film adaptations over the
years, I was not really looking forward to screening the first MAZE RUNNER
film last year. Yet, as another on a long list of post-apocalyptic sci-fi
thrillers, THE MAZE RUNNER was a legitimately thrilling and well oiled
attempt at the genre, made all the more compelling because of its engaging
take on THE LORD OF THE FLIES mythology.
I enjoyed the relative intimate nature of that film and how
the characters’ desperate attempts to get through the maze in question
were the film’s chief assets and selling points.
The final 20 or 30 films of the film, rather unfortunately, told us
about the world beyond the maze, which was frankly less interesting than
the storyline involving the journey through the maze itself.
Now, with THE SCORCH TRIALS we, oddly enough, have no mazes – nor
maze running – to speak of. Rather,
it drops many of the exemplary thrills of THE MAZE RUNNER and instead
focuses on life outside of the maze and the Glades, which, to be fair,
doesn’t crackle with the same level of intrigue.
If anything, THE SCORCH TRIALS feels like one long – make that
overly long at 130 minutes – placeholder film for the inevitable third
film in the trilogy. Sigh.
THE SCORCH TRIALS
is a very direct sequel in the sense that it immediately takes place after
the events of the introductory entry.
If cause you forgot, THE MAZE RUNNER ended with futuristic clan
leader and protagonist Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) leading his fellow
survivors – Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster),
Minho (Ki Hong Lee) and others – to escape their prison-like
existence in the maze, after which time they were taken by military forces to what’s
assumed to be a secure and safe location (seeing as the outside world –
referred to as “The Scorch” – is the stuff of inhospitable, blasted
out and ruined post-apocalyptic nightmares).
When THE SCORCH TRIALS opens our adolescent heroes arrive at the
compound, taking in and cared for by its operator Janson (Aidan Gillen),
and it's at this point that they are told that they will have to be patient and wait
for their rightful turn in line to be taken to “The Promised Land.”
Where this Promised Land is and, for what matter, what it actually
entails is never fully revealed.
awfully fishy for Thomas right from the get-go, seeing as he and his
companions are made to feel more like incarcerated inmates than welcome
guests. When they meet
another lad (Jacob Lofland) that also escaped a separate maze and is
highly suspicious of Jansen’s motives, Thomas’ curiosity gets the
better of him. After Thomas
makes a grisly discovery that the outpost is a front for WCKD (the
evil and omnipresent organization that seems more frustratingly opaque and
ill defined this time around), he and his pals decide to escape and
take their chances in “The Scorch,” which is populated by zombified “Cranks,” or humans that have been infected
by the “Flare Virus”
(let’s just say that they're zombies).
trying to stay alive in the desert-like wasteland and avoid being killed,
Thomas and company gain new allies in Jorge and Brenda (Giancarlo Esposito
and Rosa Salazar respectively) in hopes of confronting and stopping WKCD for good.
Of the good
things about this sequel I’ll say this: It’s one of the most visually
impressive efforts on a relatively low budget ($50-60 million) that I’ve
seen as of late. I admired
director Wes Ball’s crisp, clean, and deeply assured direction in the
first film, and he continues on again in THE SCORCH TRIALS to create an
endlessly dynamic looking portrait of this franchise’s dilapidated
and diseased world. The
production values and VFX design here to render the apocalyptic cityscapes
(most of which appear to have been bombed out and buried in sand) are well
above what I was expecting from this film.
Considering the lushly natural foliage look of the Glades and the
ominously dark caverns and corridors of the maze in the first film, THE
SCORCH TRIALS succeeds at fully giving itself a distinct aesthetic look
that separates itself apart from the initial entry.
And, yes, even though the Cranks are, for the most part, zombies
that feel ripped from other better post-apocalyptic horror films, Ball
nevertheless crafts multiple chase sequences containing reasonable levels
of nail-biting suspense. Unlike
so many other YA fiction, THE SCORCH TRIALS never tries to be too warm and
inviting for viewers.
triumphantly assured as the film’s overall look is, though, THE SCORCH
TRIALS is kind of a failure on a level of scripting.
Nothing much actually happens to Thomas and his companions
throughout this film; there are hints of progressive new plot
developments here and there with new characters introduced to the mix, but
by and large there’s not much actual advancement of the main story
beyond what we got in THE MAZE RUNNER.
Considering that a majority of the film’s running time has
characters (old and new) explaining particulars regarding Thomas’
enemies, THE SCORCH TRIALS feels oddly padded and bloated while never
really clearly defining the whole central war between Thomas’ resistance
and WKCD. This is not
assisted by the fact the this series’ villains – in the form of
Gillen’s Janson and Patricia Clarkson’s horrendously underutilized and
underdeveloped Ava Paige – never fully emerge as worthwhile antagonists that deserve our interest. Even
the main hero in Thomas this time comes off as more hopelessly clueless
than ever before. In the
first film he acted as an audience surrogate into this franchise’s
twisted world and seemed genuinely confused as we did, but in the sequel
he’s essentially been delegated to looking even more befuddled and
panicky while crazily running away from his pursuers.
As far as his classical "Hero’s Journey" goes, Thomas
in this film barely takes any baby steps to becoming a fully realized and
empowered protagonist; he’s essentially the same person at the end of
this film as he was by the conclusion of the first entry.
SCORCH TRIALS is still a far cry better than, say, the
recent DIVERGENT sequel and a handful of other lackluster young
adult film adaptations. Ball
quarterbacks a thoroughly action packed sequel that’s momentarily
thrilling and packs an empowered sense of ingenuity with oppressive
imagery. The main
shortcoming with THE SCORCH TRIALS is that it contains undercooked world
building, so much to the point where – by the time the end credits
rolled by – I never gained a solid sense of what Thomas and his
resistance fighters were…resisting and what Patricia Clarkson’s
tyrannical governmental body was really all about.
For a film that’s nearly two and a half hours, there’s far too
many hazy details left unexplained here.
THE DEATH CURE in 2017 will be the final entry in this MAZE RUNNER
trilogy, and here’s hoping it ends this once promising series with a
proverbial bang. It’s just
too bad that this middle chapter neither improves nor expands upon the
good elements of its forerunner.
And speaking of runners, there is an awful lot of running in this movie. No false advertising there.