The Scorch Trials does a lot of things that successful sequels do: It builds on the mythology of the first film and creates a much larger canvas for its characters to work with, upping both the scale and stakes. In fact, the scope of the franchise balloons so quickly, it can be easy to forget this is a Maze Runner sequel and that’s mostly a good thing- The Scorch Trials doesn’t cut all it’s tied to the first film. There are still plenty of unanswered questions, a healthy dose of stupid made-up slang, and, of course, lots and lots of running.
The final moments of The Maze Runner were heavy on exposition. Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), fresh out of the maze- a mechanical labyrinth filled with monsters- and his friend Grievers learn that the maze was an experiment run by an agency called WCKD. The experiment was somehow meant to study their ability to resist a deadly virus known as “The Flare.” The Scorch Trials catches up with Thomas and the gang, (known as “gladers”) just as they are picked up by Janson (Aiden Gillen), who brings them to a way station filled with kids from other mazes where they’ll wait to be brought to a safe haven paradise.
Here he meets Aris (Jacob Lofland, Mud) who isn’t convinced they ever escaped WCKD. Some quick sleuthing through improbably large vents reveals that in fact, Janson works for Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson, Shutter Island). And that paradise he’s taking them to… it’s a room where they suck the virus-fighting enzyme out of their brains in an effort to find a cure for the flare, which turns the infected into insane zombie-like creatures. The revelation sends the gladers into “the scorch” which is just a silly name for the wasteland that used to be America, in search of a safe haven.
The Scorch Trials is a decidedly mixed bag. It represents a solid improvement over the first film, which banked too heavily on a mystery whose reveal felt like little more than exposition for the second film. If there is a payoff to The Maze Runner, it’s supposed to be The Scorch Trials and in a lot of ways it does pay off. Director Wes Ball has created a genuinely exciting film and after two films, he’s definitely proven he knows how to craft an action sequence. What he hasn’t shown yet is the ability to elevate a film beyond genre cliché.
The Maze Runner film, like the novel by James Dashner, kept things solidly inside the “Young Adult Post-Apocalyptic” box. The Scorch Trials doesn’t so much elevate the story beyond these tropes, but instead drops it inside a new worn-out genre: the zombie film. A genre that this film, in turn, plays out equally by the numbers. Anyone who’s seen a handful of zombie films could probably predict the plot of The Scorch Trials note for note, right down to the character betrayals and heart-wrenching revelations of infection.
Not all the creative decisions in the film are simply derivative; some are just plain bad. The monstrous grievers from the previous film might have had stupid names, but they were actually threatening. Here, they’re replaced by zombies, called ‘cranks’ because everything in this universe needs a stupid name. They make poor replacements, exchanging a hulking, half-mechanical beast with what is essentially a less coordinated version of a human. However, the biggest issue with the series remains its leads: Dylan O’Brien and Kaya Scodelario.
Shouldering the lead in an action film, especially one aimed at young adults, is a difficult task. These roles are often borderline blank slates with little depth in order to allow viewers to transpose themselves into the role. The first film seemed to understand that and filled the void of personality with a large, colorful, if forgettable, cast of supporting characters. Even though there are fewer of them, Thomas’s buddies become increasingly one-dimensional. They could easily be renamed Companion One through Four. Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Nanny McPhee) seems particularly wasted, but does good work with what little he has, which is very little.
The majority of the work falls on O’Brien, Scodelario, and Rosa Salazar who plays Brenda, the adopted daughter of Jorge, played by a massively overacting Giancarlo Esposito (Breaking Bad), who helps them through the Scorch. It’s hard to judge how much of O’Brien’s performances boils down to a script that refuses to give him any depth. Salazar has no problem acting circles around him and gives the film a solid dose of the attitude it’s sorely missing. The biggest offender here is Scodelario, who plays Teresa with all the dimension of a sheet of paper and struggles through scenes as if her face were allergic to showing emotion.
Technical credits are strong. Cinematographer, Gyula Pados (Predators) helps give the film its epic scope, capturing an effectively disastrous production design by Daniel T. Dorrance (Saving Private Ryan). Dan Zimmerman, who edited the first film, keeps things feeling energetic and kinetic, even when the film is dragging on to its conclusion after a 2 hour plus running time. Actually, conclusion is probably too strong a word for how this film ends, which, like the first film, is which a giant To Be Continued.
Verdict: 3 out of 5
If you’re looking to have all your questions from The Maze Runner answered, The Scorch Trials will probably disappoint. How exactly does a killer maze test anyone’s resistance to a virus? Why is Thomas so damn important in the first place? If there are indeed satisfying answers to these questions, they’re not here. However, if this film’s marked improvement over the Maze Runner is any indication, the trilogy’s final chapter: The Death Cure, might just bring this middling franchise to a satisfying conclusion. The direction that The Scorch Trials moves things in might not be original, but it is at least entertaining, and that’s not something the first film could boast.