A film review by Craig J. Koban September 23, 2015

MAZE RUNNER: THE SCORCH TRIALS jj
½   

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. 

Things seem 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 some WICKED (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).  While 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 WICKED 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.   

For as 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 WICKED.  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. 

THE 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.

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