Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials
In the pantheon of YA ("Young Adult") dystopian book-turned-movie series, if The Hunger Games occupies the pinnacle then The Maze Runner sits in the basement. After an encouraging and engaging first half of the first film, The Maze Runner has been in free-fall and the repetitious, narratively threadbare second installment puts the saga in danger of becoming an also-ran. With minimal plot development and far too much running around in dark corridors, The Scorch Trials has a poor story:filler ratio. And much of what happens is poorly thought-out. The visuals of a blasted city are impressive but hardly reason to spend $10 to sit in a theater seat and watch a bunch of underdeveloped characters get chased by zombies for an inordinate amount of time.
The Scorch Trials starts where The Maze Runner ended with protagonist Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) and his fellow survivors - Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Minho (Ki Hong Lee), and a few others - being spirited out of harm's way to a secure location. Once there, they are promised a ticket to The Promised Land by site operator Janson (Aidan Gillen) - they just have to be patient and wait until things are ready. Aris Jones (Jacob Lofland), a boy who escaped from another maze, is skeptical of the situation and suspicious of Janson, and Thomas agrees with him. When the truth is revealed, a long chase across an inhospitable desert called "The Scorch" ensues. Along the way, Thomas and company are parted from members of their group and gain new allies (Giancarlo Esposito's Jorge and Rosa Salazar's Brenda), but the goal remains much the same and the movie ends without the narrative arc having advanced substantially.
One might argue that this movie has been made for fans of the books, although it's unclear how happy lovers of James Dashner's novel will be by screenwriter T.S. Nowlin's re-sculpting of the story. The Scorch Trials movie differs substantially from its source material. The result represents a bloated production cluttered with protracted encounters with the zombie-like creatures afflicted by "The Flare". Director Wes Ball cribs freely from other, better films. Although previous dystopian pictures have influenced his view of a blasted future, Alien and Aliens form the spine of several obvious references.
Dylan O'Brien's acting evidences a minimalist approach. He's the dark, brooding type. Thomas has heartthrob looks but little emotional range. The character is defined by a suspicious nature which, considering the world in which he lives, is understandable. Still, he comes across as a cold fish and isn't as likable or sympathetic as he was in The Maze Runner. His old friends, including quasi-love interest Teresa, played by Kaya Scodelario, aren't given more than token screen time. Newcomers Giancarlo Esposito and Rosa Salazar are accorded decent exposure, with the latter spending a lengthy segment paired up with O'Brien (in which they are running through dark corridors while being chased by zombies). Game of Thrones' Littlefinger, Aidan Gillen, takes the villain's mantle from Patricia Clarkson, although the latter pops up from time-to-time to remind us she didn't really die in the first film.
The Scorch Trials is not entirely without merit. Thematically, it touches on the age-old question of whether the end justifies the means. Is it reasonable to sacrifice a segment of the population to save a larger group? When do individual rights trump civil responsibility? The approach isn't balanced but at least the movie addresses these issues. Additionally, the reasons underlying a surprise "twist" are solidly developed (although a more convincing groundwork could have been established by providing extensive flashbacks).
Post-apocalyptic stories are appealing to writers and filmmakers because the richness of the basic premise and because the concept attracts both cynics (those who believe civilization is doomed) and optimists (those who believe humanity can rise from the ashes). Faults of The Maze Runner/The Scorch Trials lie more in the development of ideas than in the ideas themselves. The series' world-building is inconsistent and unconvincing - impressive computer generated images and glimpses of a maverick society substituting for a meticulous construct. It's too much "wow!" over too little substance - not uncommon but disappointing nonetheless. Add to that a story that spins its wheels and fails to justify its 128-minute running time and The Scorch Trials represents the most barren dystopian movie (YA or not) to have reached theaters in the last few years. One can only hope the release of the third Maze Runner film will justify its existence if not its length.
© 2015 James Berardinelli