Thanks to the recent resurgence in young adult sci-fi films, it is becoming pretty easy to predict what you are going to get when you walk into one. A futuristic dystopian setting where, either by luck or misfortune, our protagonist is tasked with saving the society from itself by drawing on the innate qualities of humanity everyone else but them has seemingly forgotten. At its best, as we have seen with The Hunger Games franchise, these stories can be a look into the deepest and darkest recesses of what humanity can be like and the pure destruction and power that drives us to destroy each other. At its worst, as is the case with the release of the latest in The Maze Runner franchise, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, it is a dull, convoluted and basic examination of a bunch of characters, who are never really developed, saving society because they have some sort of super juice immunity in their DNA.
The Scorch Trials picks up mere minutes after the ending of the first film. Having successfully escaped the titular maze in which they were running, protagonist Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and his band of Gladers, Minho (Ki Hong Lee), Frypan (Dexter Darden), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Winston (Alexander Flores) and (Teresa) Kaya Scodelario, are flown into the company of Janson (Game of Throne’s Aidan Gillen, dressed in a formidable leather jacket), a mercenary who claims to be from a rival organization to the shadowy organization that created the mazes, the ridiculously named WCKD (pronounced wicked). Unsurprisingly, as you could probably guess from the trailer, instead of actually giving the kids who have escaped the maze a safe haven, Janson is actually in league with WCKD and its head scientist Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson). Together, the pair is harvesting children to figure out why these kids are immune to the effects of ‘the flare’, a zombie-like virus that has left world barren and unlivable.
If this sounds confusing or even mildly far-fetched, it’s because it kind of is. The biggest issue with The Scorch Trials is that it banks on its audience being liberal with the elements of the plot they have already introduced. The movie incorporates plot points or story elements at will, to add tension or meaning to the overall story, only to abandon them 15 minutes later when it doesn’t work with the cool action sequence they have planned. In fact, one of the most crucial elements of the film’s story is upended within the first 30 minutes, yet somehow still remains a driving force in the film’s third act. Screenwriter T.S. Nowlin (who co-wrote the first film) does a lackluster job with the screenplay here. Nowlin plays fast and loose with the basic plot of James Dashner’s book on which the movie was based; even fans of the book will find all of the above just as confusing as those who haven’t read it.
Equally as bland is the performance of the cast. As our heroic and determined protagonist Thomas, Dylan O’Brien’s performance is forgettable as he blends into the background alongside the myriad of characters that are never fully formed. The same can be said of his fellow co-stars, Lee, Darden, Brodie-Sangster, Flores and Scodelario, who all suffer from having to share the screen with one another. Surprisingly, despite the overdrawn, stuffy and incident-packed 131-minute run time, the film offers virtually no character development or plot advancement. Rather, the film focuses on the journey of its six characters across the barren, dusty and hot Scorch setting. Foregoing any real sense of group dynamics, everything that the primary characters do is reactive as they move from one horror to another with no sense of direction or idea of what’s going on. Likewise, in their small roles as villain Janson and seemingly evil gang boss Jorge, Aiden Gillen and Giancarlo Esposito’s big star talent is wasted as they play obvious caricatures of big, bad guys – and as for Clarkson, it is almost not even worth elaborating on the hatchet writing of Ava Paige.
In fact, the only real saving grace here is the ‘cool action sequences’ the movie has chosen to foreground over real character development. Although not always successful, director Wes Ball’s sequencing is mostly effective in creating taut and suspenseful action sequences. Despite the domination of quick cuts and shaky cam, some of the action sequences, particularly in the last third of the film, make use of some great production design to be visually exciting and interesting. Likewise, there is some beauty to be found in some of the long shots used as the group trudge through the unforgiving terrain of the Scorch. Indeed, one of the film’s more emotional punches resonates in large part because of the use of one such long shot.
However, such moments are few and far between. Whilst Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials avoids the usual teen pitfalls of romance, lust and identity questioning, it does nothing in the way of developing an even remotely interesting story. Moving at what can only be described as a snail’s pace, it gives no consideration to the questions of science, right of life and humanity its source material seems so obviously to hint at. Rather, The Scorch Trials is the epitome of a middle movie; 131 minutes of total filler and cash grabbing where everyone involved seems to be phoning in their efforts until the last movie in the trilogy is released in 2017. Unlike the fireball smash of its prequel, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials is a lukewarm movie that will leave you parched for a good movie experience.
THE REEL SCORE: 4/10