One of last year’s bigger sci-fi surprises was The Maze Runner. Directed by the unknown Wes Ball, starring a cast of young, mostly unfamiliar faces, and based on a dystopian YA novel by James Dashner, the movie had all the potential in the world to be yet another forgettable, irritating carbon copy of The Hunger Games. Instead, it proved to be a thoughtfully-directed and reasonably well-acted, post-apocalyptic mystery nestled into a Lord of the Flies scenario. It was gripping entertaining.
But of course, no one leaves well enough alone anymore, and since Dashner wrote a trilogy of books (does any author ever get to publish a standalone genre novel anymore?), it therefore follows that, given The Maze Runner’s healthy box office return, the other books should also be adapted for the screen. So, now we have Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, which picks up literally where the first story left off and follows our band of surviving characters out of the gigantic maze they’ve had to navigate and into what’s left of the world beyond.
A quick recap: in the first film, protagonist Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) woke up with no memories in a place called the Glade, a sort of rural encampment populated entirely by teenage boys and sealed off by a gigantic maze populated by monstrous creatures. Eventually Thomas and a small group of friends – including the Glade’s first female prisoner, Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) – solved the Maze and broke out, only to discover that they were the subjects of a vast experiment to find out why they were immune to a deadly virus that has wiped out most of whatever was left of humanity following (!) a solar flare that destroyed civilization.
As The Scorch Trials begins, Thomas and friends – along with kids who have survived other labyrinths — are whisked away to another secret facility run by the organization behind the Maze, WCKD. This group is under the supervision of Janson (Aiden Gillen, collecting a paycheck to play Littlefinger in a sci-fi setting). But it’s not long before the kids discover that instead of the new homes they’re being promised, they’re being prepped for more ghastly experiments. So, they escape and head into the Scorch – the blasted wasteland that is home to blazing heat, ruined cities and (fast-moving) zombie-like virus victims known as Cranks – looking for answers and trying to outrun Janson and the minions of WCKD.
The problem with a lot of series of this type – whether they’re YA or not – is that once you get past the initial idea that makes the first book or movie compelling, in this case the mystery of why the teens are being held captive within the Glade and the nature of the Maze itself, the more you learn about the mythology the more it falls apart. Once we realize that WCKD wants to figure out why Thomas and his companions are immune to the virus, we immediately have to ask: so why build the Mazes? And with the world in ruins, who has the resources for such an enormous, expensive undertaking and couldn’t they be put to a better purpose?
Leaving the Maze behind might have seemed like a good idea in light of these massive holes in the story, but The Scorch Trials doesn’t come up with anything coherent to replace it. Once the kids escape the WCKD facility (and again, you have to ask, why does the research into the cause of the virus have to be so sinister?), the movie becomes one long chase, with the gang pausing to catch their breath every 10 minutes or so before another chase or action sequence kicks in. There’s really no further attempt at character development: we know that Thomas is the Chosen One for some reason, but only because the genre itself seems to dictate that someone has to be. Even when one of the group betrays the others later on, we really don’t understand why.
In fact, there’s little to understand in The Scorch Trials. The world outside the Maze just seems thrown together from pieces of other franchises. The Cranks are right out of World War Z, while the hedonistic community headed by a guyliner-wearing Alan Tudyk brings back memories of the risible “dance party” scene from The Matrix Reloaded that we’ve tried so hard to forget all these years. The goals of the characters are confusing because they try to breathlessly explain them between action scenes. I was convinced for 15 minutes that one pocket of survivors was supposed to be their final destination, only to learn that, no, there is another one (that will presumably be the objective of the next movie, The Death Cure).
The Scorch Trials does have a few bright spots. In between all the running, and falling and jumping, Ball gets off a few striking shots – such as one gorgeous tableau where the group is walking along a ridge of sand in silhouette and stop in unison as they hear a gunshot in the distance that signals tragedy. And while all the returning leads like O’Brien and Scodelario are given little to do that’s not physical this time, the movie is given a spark of life by two new characters, Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito) and his adopted daughter Brenda (Rosa Salazar), who are lively and feisty and have an inventive way of dealing with intruders to their compound (Esposito especially seems to be having the time of his life). Sadly, a returning Patricia Clarkson and other grown-up stars like Lili Taylor don’t get much screen time.
Ultimately, however, The Scorch Trials does fall victim to what we mentioned earlier, that having a good idea for one story doesn’t always mean that narrative can be successfully expanded. Although I have not read Dashner’s books, my understanding is that the source novel here also suffered from a lot of problems, forcing the filmmakers to deviate significantly from the book this time. And although there is one more book to go — the film is already slated to arrive in February 2017 — at least the studio is not mandating that The Death Cure be split into two movies (at least not yet; the box office yields for The Scorch Trials could always change that). Sure, Thomas and the gang may have escaped the Maze, but the irony is that with a bigger world around them now, they seem to be headed nowhere interesting.
Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials is out in theaters Friday (Sept. 18).