REVIEW: Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials [2015]

Score: 5/10 | ★ ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 132 minutes | Release Date: September 18th, 2015 (USA)
Studio: Twentieth Century Fox
Director(s): Wes Ball
Writer(s): T.S. Nowlin / James Dashner (novel)

“Where did you come from? Where are you going? How can I profit?”

Full disclosure: I haven’t yet read James Dashner‘s Maze Runner series so I’m not sure if his second installment is as hollow as the film version, but I hope it isn’t. Many people have told me that T.S. Nowlin‘s script virtually rewrites the entire thing—not always bad (see Insurgent bookending its tale correctly despite changing the middle to be more cinematic)—so I’m retaining my optimism the text lives up to the first story’s potential because what director Wes Ball has brought to life is merely a popcorn action-packed zombie flick masked as a continuation of the suspenseful dystopian mystery he gave us one year ago. In just over two hours we learn one thing that we already assumed: Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) has always been a hero.

The rest is superfluous and it’s a shame because The Maze Runner got me excited for what was to come only for The Scorch Trials to prove mere filler before a finale currently shaping up to be as boringly loud as it. The film hopes we latch onto the utilitarian way in which WCKD head Dr. Paige (Patricia Clarkson) is operating—that we understand her endgame is pure if not her method. There’s obviously an epidemic with the Flare virus turning humans into violent monsters and a cure is necessary, but those in command seem to be relishing the ruse they’ve constructed to incarcerate those children able to help in that quest a bit too much. And without sufficient time to build their complexity, these villains become cardboard.

This is the rub when you finally put a face to the evil. The Maze Runner succeeded by turning their situation into the thing to overcome, not the people responsible for putting them there. Now that we know who Dr. Paige is and get introduced to military man Janson (Aidan Gillen), it’s up to them to live up to their end of the bargain and sadly the writing here never affords the opportunity to do so. Instead Nowlin and Ball hope to push them to the background still and make the film about Thomas and friends surviving the so-called “Scorch”—a post-apocalyptic wasteland of sand and decimated skyscrapers that used to be America. Frankly, though, Flare-infected “Cranks” are hardly as captivating as a hermetically sealed maze.

So it’s run, kill, hide, rinse, and repeat. We get a new character in Aris Jones (Jacob Lofland) to join their struggle and potential allies in Right Arm members Mary (Lili Taylor) and Vince (Barry Pepper). I’m not sure what to call Giancarlo Esposito‘s Jorge since he enters the story as a duplicitous man only out for himself before turning on a dime without warning into someone with a conscience. I look to his character as the epitome of all that’s wrong with the film: good intentions for growth that get stripped down and erased in order to service an already paper-thin plot blindly. I knew it would be disappointing as most middle chapters of trilogies are, but I never thought it would add nothing to the conversation.

Lofland’s Aris is a nice addition as is Jorge’s ward Brenda (Rosa Salazar). There are some cool effects and creepy set pieces in dark tunnels with eerie lighting and vicious creatures, but it’s all window-dressing that leads us to the same place we were at the start. Thomas, Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Minho (Ki Hong Lee), and Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) must escape the over-arching clutches of Paige and WCKD. Does The Scorch Trials get them closer to that end? No. In fact they may even be further away. I guess what happens does solidify Thomas as de facto leader, though. Somehow his saving them in the first was enough because he must nudge the rest a bit more through recklessly heroic behavior. Too bad we didn’t also need it.

Hopefully The Death Cure finds a way to make this journey worthwhile. Perhaps that means nothing more than utilizing the new characters in awesome ways to warrant this two-hour zombie nightmare to serve as their introduction. That’s a tough uphill battle, though, and I’m not sure this film instills much confidence in them finding a way. What worked in the Maze Runner as far as keeping everything to the trapped kids’ experience and vantage is just too insulating here. We needed to learn about WCKD beyond heresay and half-truths. We needed to know exactly what they are about and how they became the oppressive regime they have. Instead of enhancing the drama, keeping them two-dimensionally in the shadows only renders the adventure a tedious slog.

courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

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