If there’s one thing to be happy about regarding The Maze Runner’s sequel, The Scorch Trials, it’s that the filmmaking powers-that-be pretty much literally lightened things up. One of our problems with the first film was it was sometimes hard to see what was going on. Our recommendation? That for the sequel the cast carry some torches. They do, and on several occasions. Sadly, though, this results in some equally tough-to-follow scenes where the torches keep flashing down the camera lens. We may keep our suggestions to ourselves in the future.
The story picks up exactly where The Maze Runner left it. The surviving inhabitants of The Glade are helicoptered to a standard-issue sleek young adult sci-fi facility (see: The Hunger Games’ training locations, Kate Winslet’s base from Insurgent), where Aiden Gillen’s villain Janson quickly starts acting a bit shifty.
Gillen plays his leather-jacket-wearing character like a forlorn teacher on a school trip – he tells the kids when to eat and when to go to bed. He gives them a good telling off when they don’t do what they’re told. This leads to a handful of fun moments as Gillen hams up his performance as much as possible. Meanwhile, everyone else is moaning and groaning.
Sadly, the core young characters of The Scorch Trials are essentially the Goonies grown teenaged and lethargic. And not in a good way. While the basic idea of cool youngsters taking down a nasty adult-made dystopia should be enjoyable and energetic, here it isn’t. The script refuses to give returning stars Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Ki Hong Lee and Dexter Darden a good line of memorable dialogue or enough character development.
Instead of talking, they tend to shout ‘run!’ or each other’s names, and don’t really interact in any other way. As a result, this impressive young cast struggles to rustle up any chemistry. They try their best with a small selection of shoehorned jokes, but there’s not the snappy verbal sparring you might hope for with this many talented actors on display.
After spending about half an hour in Janson’s compound, the youngsters end up in ‘the scorch’ – the barren outside world, a place full of disease and desperation. Here, you’d hope, the story might pick up. Instead, we’re given a string of largely unrelated set pieces as the script flounders around. You feel like the writers are biding their time before bringing all the goodies and baddies back together at the end, and even that culminates in nothing more than a demand for viewers to come back next time.
This is second-in-a-trilogy syndrome, and not at its best – nothing really happens because nothing is allowed to happen. The kids can’t defeat anyone, or even learn anything, because all that presumably happens in the next film. In a great trilogy, this is where the character material would take centre stage, heightening our investment before the big showdown in part three. In The Scorch Trials, there’s none of that.
There are couple of saving graces, though. In the scorch, we enter horror movie territory for a few scenes. Here Wes Ball has great fun framing the action. He wrangles some tense chase sequences and engineers one big jump scare. Despite a couple of moments where the action becomes unfollowable, Ball largely does well. We’d like to see what he could do with a better script. There’s a sense that he’s got a brilliant blockbuster in him, but this definitely isn’t it.
The same goes for the cast – especially Dylan O’Brien and impressive franchise newcomers Jacob Lofland and Rosa Salazar. They admirably attempt to elevate the film – and could definitely do well in meatier roles – but the nothing-important-happens nature of The Scorch Trials script stifles them completely.
Put simply – this is a film that doesn’t really need to exist at all, from a narrative or character standpoint. We learn practically nothing about the world, and an impressive cast is left to run around in circles while the studio preps the next film for them. A missed opportunity, really.
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