20th Century Fox
2014’s The Maze Runner is not a great movie. It features an intriguing setup to be sure – a teen with no memory, a group trapped in the center of a deadly and seemingly inescapable maze, the promise of answers beyond the wall – but that setup is the entirety of the movie. Pretty much every question the film asks is left unanswered by the time the credits roll, and instead of leaving viewers excited for a follow-up it left many of us annoyed by what amounted to nothing more than an extended prologue.
The goofily-titled sequel, The Scorch Trials, doesn’t need to be all that good to still be an improvement, but happily it’s not only a massive step up in every way it’s also the best YA genre adaptation since Beautiful Creatures. Hopefully audiences don’t screw up and avoid this one too.
When we last left them, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and his fellow maze rats – Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), Frypan (Dexter Darden), Minho (Ki Hong Lee), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and Winston (Alexander Flores) – had escaped the structure only to discover it was a testing ground set up by W.C.K.D. in the hopes of understanding the virus that has decimated humanity. They were greeted by soldiers who flew them away to safety, and it’s that safe compound where a man named Jansen (Aidan Gillen) explains that they’re part of a resistance working to rescue the immune teenagers from the clutches of W.C.K.D. Their goal is to evacuate the teens to the permanent safety of a viable land beyond the Scorch – the desert-like landscape that has taken over much of the planet – but Thomas suspects that something is amiss.
He’s something of a “glass half empty” kind of guy this Thomas. (To be fair though, Jansen isn’t very convincing when he says they’re sending the kids to live out their days on a nice farm in the country.)
An ally and information source appears in Aris (Jacob Lofland), another teen who survived his own maze, and it’s not long before the gang leaves the armored compound behind and sets off across the Scorch. Old friends are lost, new ones are made, and each step they take across sandy dunes and through crumbling cities brings them closer to the truth – not only of what’s really going on around them but also of Thomas’ true role at the heart of it all.
Director Wes Ball returns (along with just one of the first film’s three writers, T.S. Nowlin) to deliver a sequel that exceeds the original’s reach in action, exposition, and sheer entertainment. What was previously little more than a setup to a story here becomes a fleshed-out tale with plot turns and revelations keeping pace with numerous exciting chases and set-pieces. The Scorch Trials is a lot of movie packed into two-plus hours.
It’s also a frequently beautiful film thanks to stunningly crafted CG effects and the sharp eye of cinematographer Gyula Pados. There are some attractively-shot desert scenes, and an early flashback shows frantic survivors hoping to escape the illness that’s already doomed them as skin flakes float in the air like so much diseased snow. The action scenes, both fights and obstacle interactions, offer a consistently clear geography and increased adrenaline – an impressive feat considering the number of action beats featured here. That number is high as the gang sees relatively few moments of downtime, and their variations along with the film’s production design keep each of them fresh and unique as we move from gun play to fist fights to chase scenes to an encounter with I Am Legend-like creatures.
The script sees some concessions to post-apocalyptic YA literature in its achingly forced terminology – the Scorch! the Glades! the Cranks! an evil group whose initials spell Wicked! – but surprisingly character names somehow escaped that fate. We get the likes of Brenda, Mary, and Vince with nary a Plutarch or Tris to be found. And while there are a couple head-scratching moments behavior-wise the characters routinely act with their intelligence and wit intact. Even the source of conflict between the two sides is nuanced by the weight of what’s at stake and the core intentions of those involved.
Comparisons are unavoidable to higher profile YA/PA (young adult/post apocalyptic) films, but Scorch Trials has at least one big advantage over the likes of The Hunger Games and the abysmally dull and dumb Divergent films. For all the gibberish talk and sci-fi tropes it contains, the world being built in the Maze Runner universe feels believable. Not only is Thomas’ relevance as “the one” based on something tangible rather than something nebulous like being able to multi-task (seriously, screw you Divergent), but the social structures in place are understandable and realistic. Viewers aren’t asked to swallow pure nonsense before embarking on the adventure, and it makes for a far more engaging experience.
Some of the new faces are barely introduced before they’re dispatched, but while the solid performances make it seem as if the actors have been shortchanged the characters still serve their purposes well. There’s a lot of talent spread between the adult supporting players including Giancarlo Esposito, Patricia Clarkson, Lily Taylor, Barry Pepper, and Alan Tudyk, but it’s O’Brien who earns his screen time with palpable energy and a visible emotional investment. His frequent and intense running scenes alone should put him on the short list to play Ethan Hunt Jr. in a future Mission: Impossible installment.
The Scorch Trials is still very much part of a bigger story as opposed to its own tale, but while that’s an unavoidable part of being the second film in an intentional trilogy it definitely delivers a movie’s worth of entertainment. Most of the answers are in the open by the end, and we’re left with a necessary and inevitable call to action in part three. I’ll be first in line for 2017’s Maze Runner: The Death Cure, but I may have to read a certain YA trilogy while I’m waiting.
The Upside: A lot of movie; several strong action sequences; exciting story progression; never loses focus; leaves viewers desperate for the third and final installment
The Downside: Still feels like only part of a story; some new characters come and go too quickly; maybe the scene featuring two minority teens having to carry a wounded third while their four white friends walk ahead of them unencumbered could have been structured differently?