At the tail end of last summer, director Wes Ball dropped yet another adaptation of yet another dystopian young adult novel, pulsing with hormones and up-and-coming stars, onto our heads with The Maze Runner—and, perhaps surprisingly, it was a blast. It occupied a qualitative middle ground between The Hunger Games movies and the increasingly messy Divergent films, especially worth celebrating because it was made on the cheap, keeping it relatively safe from the same hype typical of its ilk and allowing it to score big in box office returns. Now sequel Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials is here, once again smack dab between its sci-fi YA siblings to continue the saga of a bunch of amnesiac teenage boys.
The second installment of author James Dashner’s trilogy picks up right where the first film left off, as balls-to-the-wall about its pacing as its predecessor. It picks us up, moves us fitfully along from action setpiece to action setpiece, providing as little necessary exposition as possible to reacquaint us with this world, not leaving much space for downtime—for moments where plot holes or inconsistencies might rear their ugly heads apart from its breakneck pace. The Scorch Trials is, oddly enough, a bit like George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road in this regard: While we’re given pause enough from time to time to work on character and motivation, expand the dystopian world, build tension, or practice some narrative heavy lifting, the film is, essentially, one long chase scene. Plus, like Mad Max too, the action itself is a vehicle for character development.
After he’s rescued from the nefarious forces of WCKD, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and the other Gladers—the boys who were dumped in the titular Maze of the first film—are temporarily “stored” in what appears to be a weigh station for others in a similar situation. Thomas, Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Minho (Ki Hong Lee) and the others, including the lone female in their crew, Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), are, understandably, unwilling to trust their new surroundings and mysterious benefactors. So when they discover the dark secret driving their “saviors,” they escape and strike out on their own.
While The Maze Runner took place in a small, self-contained realm, The Scorch Trials rips down the walls and throws Dashner’s world wide open. In this move, we learn: the true extent of WCKD’s reach, not to mention the extreme lengths they’re willing to go to in order to meet their end game; a vague reason for wiping the memories of young people and dropping them in the Maze; the true nature of Thomas and Teresa’s relationship; etc. As the film’s title implies, much of the planet has been “scorched” by solar storms and turned into a post-apocalyptic wasteland that—perhaps alluding more to the zeitgeist’s current fascination with the apocalypse than any one film—resembles Mad Max. Also? Our characters have a virulent plague with which to contend, a nasty little bug that turns its victims into flesh-hungry maniacs. Here The Scorch Trials shows its contrived colors: The infected are essentially fast, slavering zombies, and the moments where they pop up feel like cut scenes leftover from 28 Days Later. You’ve seen this all before—guess how you catch the virus? That’s right, when those “zombies” bite you.
Again, like the first film, world-building takes a backseat to the action, and the closer one looks at the plot, the bigger the cracks appear. The film is willing to provide a glimpse of its world’s institutionalized side, manifest in WCKD strongholds and sterile lab facilities, then sinks into the grim, filthy, precarious existence of those who live outside, in the ruins of the old world, to offer some juxtaposition and context. This also includes an awkward drug scene at what is, for lack of a better word, a post-apocalyptic rave. For the most part, T.S. Nowlin’s script provides just enough information—which, when you get down to it, is more or less some cookie cutter plotting. Which is why so much focus in placed in the film’s action.
As far as the performances go, they’re fine; O’Brien proves once again he’s got enough charisma and presence to carry the day as a teen in mortal danger. There’s a lot of him looking puzzled as he tries to piece together the truth, lead his friends to safety or sprint from imminent danger. A nice crew of new additions brings a wider swath of generations to the table, including Giancarlo Esposito as a resident of the Scorch, Aiden Gillen (Game of Thrones’ Littlefinger) as the primary antagonist perfectly sleazing and smarming his way throughout, and Barry Pepper as a desert revolutionary.
And, oh hey—there are actual women in the movie. First time out, Teresa was, literally, the only woman in the movie. Unfortunately, she is not any more developed in The Scorch Trials. Meanwhile, Rosa Salazar plays a tough denizen of the wasteland, as well as—sigh: of course—a potential future love interest for Thomas. Nathalie Emmanuel shows up as a survivor from another Maze, while Lili Taylor’s presence hints at a broader, more sprawling history, and fills in some of the mythos’s narrative gaps. Though women slowly grow in importance in this franchise, they still serve only functional concepts.
Overall, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials is very much a middle-chapter kind of film; it’s this saga’s The Empire Strikes Back, leaving the franchise’s overarching story and characters in the lurch, totally bummed after being betrayed by someone they trusted and paying the price for their freedom, setting up the coming conflict of the third and final chapter: The Death Cure. It can be cheesy and trite and predictable at times—not to mention its inability to develop characters who are anything but male past placeholding roles—but the sheer breakneck pace and frenetic energy of these Trials are more than enough to whip the movie along the rails of a well-done, generic, teen-centric action flick.
Director: Wes Ball
Writers: T.S. Nowlin (screenplay), James Dashner (novel)
Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Ki Hong Lee, Rosa Salazar, Giancarlo Esposito, Aiden Gillan, Patricia Clarkson, Barry Pepper
Release Date: September 18, 2015