MAZE RUNNER: THE SCORCH TRIALS
Unlike a good number of my fellow critics, I liked The Maze Runner, a film I thought was steady in pacing, generally well-acted, and a departure from many dystopian Young Adult fiction adaptations in that it removes romance from the narrative (and in what might be a twist, returns the lead to a male rather than Hunger Games' Katniss or Insurgent's Tris). Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, the second part of James Dasher's trilogy (The Death Cure being the third and The Kill Order being a prequel), builds on what came before. It, I don't think, is better than The Maze Runner. It's serviceable, with some great visuals and tense moments, good casting, and an interesting story. It keeps things going to where one does want to see how it all ends.
The Gladers have made it out of The Maze and find themselves rescued by a mysterious figure called "Mr. Janson" (Aidan Gillen). They find themselves in a special facility where they discover there are many mazes, a few of them the reverse of their maze (mostly women). The Glader's de facto leader, Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) is suspicious of how things are going on here, as is Aris (Jacob Lofland), the person who has been at the facility the longest. Despite his seniority, Aris has never been airlifted to a safe place from the wicked WCKD organization, which had put all these kids in their mazes.
Soon it becomes clear why: WCKD and its wicked leader Dr. Paige (Patricia Clarkson) are in cahoots with Janson, and Thomas helps his other Gladers: Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Minho (Ki Hong Lee), Frypan (Dexter Dardon), and Winston (Alexander Flores), along with Aris and Teresa (Kaya Scoledario), who was separated from them, escape.
That was a rather long sentence, so my apologies for that.
They escape and are now headed to find The Right Arm, a rebel group attempting to overthrow WCKD. Of course, this means having to go through The Scorch, a desolate place full of Cranks (formerly known as zombies or walking dead). Poor Winston gets infected, and in order to prevent him going full Crank he is given a gun to take an honorable alternative. They eventually find an abandoned warehouse, or at least they think it's abandoned. Instead, it is the home of criminals Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito) and his henchgirl Brenda (Rosa Salazar), who've been waiting for an opportunity to get on WCKD's good graces. Until WCKD attacks, at which point Jorge and Brenda spirit the Gladers away before Patsy Cline's Walking After Midnight ends...and sets off major explosions.
Well, Brenda and Thomas are separated from the others, and have to go to find them in the sleazy Zone A, where hedonism in Hell is all around. Jorge pushes the WCKD informant/den of iniquity manager Marcus (Alan Tudyk) to lead them to The Right Arm. He does, and they encounter the resistance (some of whom were former prisoners with Aris, thus sparing the group). They meet Vince (Barry Pepper) and Dr. Mary Cooper (Lily Taylor), who tells them that Thomas was their inside man in WCKD. She gets a cure for the infected Brenda and tells Thomas she left WCKD due to differences between her and Paige over how to harvest the natural enzymes that immune people had. However, Teresa, in an effort to stop what has happened to her mother to happen to others, has informed WCKD of their location, and they sweep in full force. The Scorch Trials ends with Paige, Janson, and Teresa fleeing a revived assault from Thomas and Vince, the group separated or in Dr. Cooper's case, killed, and Thomas determined to make one last stand against WCKD.
I don't think The Scorch Trials is better than The Maze Runner. However, I think The Scorch Trials has what I imagine its readers and those who enjoyed The Maze Runner want: a lot of action, some new twists, and a lot of action.
I make special note of the action because some of the action pieces in The Scorch Trials were downright amazing. Yes, I know I sound all fanboy at that, but since I've not read the Dasher books (though I did try with The Maze Runner and found that the film stayed close to the book, at least up to the part I stopped at), I am nonpartisan. Of particular note is when Brenda and Thomas have to escape the ruined city. Their escape was THRILLING, and yes, I do require that to be in all caps.
When we find the Cranks the first time, it did make people jump and the Gladers rush to escape, while frenetic, was certainly in line with the tension director Wes Ball was aiming for. He even managed to get a little artsy at times, like when the group walks away knowing Winston has to shoot himself. The imagery deliberately evokes the end of The Seventh Seal, and while obviously The Scorch Trials is nowhere, nowhere near Ingmar Bergman's masterpiece it was nice of him to sneak that in.
Again and again The Scorch Trials does push the action factor up as far as it can, even if at times one is left slightly confused by what is going on. I didn't realize those Cranks were the infected beings the Gladers and their group were producing the cure for. Truth be told, I just thought they were random zombies (and I don't even remember the name the Cranks used). How Teresa managed to contact WCKD (as silly and obvious a name as to be almost parody) I don't know either. All the suggestions about Thomas being more involved in things than even he knows is also just a case of having to introduce it now so that we can get on with The Death Cure next year.
In terms of directing actors, I wonder whether Ball thought some things through. For example, Janson is so obviously a bad guy one wonders why the Gladers didn't think he would be menacing. They seem all too eager to accept things, even if it is obvious that it really is all too good to be true. I don't know whether Gillen was deliberately directed to play up Janson's wicked nature to where he was a mustache short of twirling or whether he thought he came across as sincere when he clearly didn't. However, it does make one wonder why the Gladers save Thomas go along with what the adults say.
In other respects, my view of O'Brien have not shifted: he still remains one of the best young actors of his generation and hope that he gets parts equal to his talent. I think he would have made an ideal Spider-Man (though I have confidence in Tom Holland). O'Brien's Thomas continues to be a young man of mystery, even to himself, and O'Brien makes him into a reluctant action hero, not eager to do what he must but still with the courage to do it. O'Brien IS the show, and he makes for compelling viewing.
It almost makes me go and watch Teen Wolf again, where he was the comic relief. He isn't here, and the fact O'Brien can handle being the goofy Styles and the serious Thomas with equal conviction shows we've yet to dig into the depth of his talent.
As a side note, I'm glad The Scorch Trials opens up the casting. I don't know many Hispanics named Winston (unless they are really strong Anglophiles), so giving the part to Flores, and this not being an issue, is a positive step. Winston's end is rather sad and moving, so I reject the idea that there isn't character development in the film.
This isn't to say that all is good. The adults are all pretty much wasted (though given this is a teen-oriented franchise, somewhat understandable). The trippy sequence in Zone A where we get what looks like debauchery is more creepy than titillating, and the suggestion of a love triangle between Teresa, Thomas, and Brenda doesn't seem to fit in there very well.
However, on the whole I think Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials should please those who enjoyed The Maze Runner. I have no way of knowing whether fans of the series will like it as much as I did, but on the whole, I think The Scorch Trials was both a pretty strong follow-up to The Maze Runner and a strong precursor to The Death Cure.
Let's take Thousand Foot Krutch's advise as I Get Wicked with a little help from Andy Hunter...