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It won’t be a surprise for anyone to learn that The Scorch Trials, the follow up to 2014’s origin story, The Maze Runner, does what every sequel does and goes much, much bigger, piling one thing after another onto its already dense plot. How did this become a thing? And why does it persist? While the first film was comfortably set in mostly one location, with the theme of escape and discovery, the surviving members of The Glade, including the sinewy, ruggedly handsome Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), and his fellow “Gladers” Minho (Ki Hong Lee), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) among others, are rescued and brought to a new facility where they meet other survivors from different mazes. They are told they are being protected from the WCKD (World in Crisis: Killzone Department), the Flare virus, which they are supposedly immune to, and the Cranks, people turned into zombie-like creatures after exposure to Flare. Of course, since adults in these stories are mostly to be distrusted, they are lied to and so join forces with Aris (Jacob Lofland), the first to make it through the maze. They escape the prison-like facility with plans to head to the mountains where the fabled Right Arm resistance group is hiding. Once free of the complex, they end up in the dead world outside called the Scorch.
Directed by Wes Ball, who also helmed The Maze Runner, the Scorch Trials actually starts out with an intriguing premise, where teens, who are immune, and who have passed Phase 1 are housed together, given a chance to get cleaned up, fed and informed of that because of the conditions outside, only a select number of them can be given passage to a new life beyond the walls of the complex. Of course, the viewer isn’t fooled and suspect no matter how well it’s dressed up, nothing good comes to those who are chosen.
Thomas, ever the curious type, also suspects there is something afoul and when he tries to gain access to what’s beyond the room they are huddled in, he learns the hard way that this is not the safe place they are told it is. Naturally, since the film needs conflict, his friends tell him he’s mistaken, despite the rather brutish way they are handled. Here lies the first problem with the film. The character are paper thin, each a painfully cutout stereotype that simply can’t deviate from the archetype. One boy is always a jokester. One boy is always the rebel. The girl is always angsty. Yes, the intended audience may identify with each, but it’s dreary and soulless.
After a close call with their first encounter with Cranks, one of them gets infected, which comes as no surprise and suddenly The Scorch Trials becomes just one more zombie chasing people film. The scene, with them running around in the dark shouting “What are those things?” while frantically trying to outpace the sprinting infected is so much like every other zombie movie, with every conceivable zombie trope thrown in, it is so unoriginal to be almost infuriating since it feels exactly what it ends up being: the kitchen sink in a film already bloated with more than enough disaster/post-apocalyptic themes to maintain the running time. The echo of a bullet from a pistol given to an infected friend as they walk away is wince-inducing, simply because it’s been done so often it feels like a parody. And at one point, I am certain there was conversation between the makers of this film and Spielberg’s lawyers over a scene involving a cracking pane of glass.
Yet, like the first film, the movie looks great. Ball has a stunning vision for these stories and bring to life a vivid world of despair, with several spectacular moments once the teens are out in the open air. The ruined cityscapes reduced to mere rumble, swept over by enormous sand dunes, creates a unique world for the young travelers to explore. I like how the world seems hopeless for them, which is precisely the point, with powerful imagery of a near dead planet reclaiming a land once riddled with people.
Interestingly enough, the best moments in a film about teenagers, actually comes from the adults, who have few parts and far less time on screen, including the likes of Alan Tudyk and Lili Taylor. Worse, once again, Patricia Clarkson shows up in a blink or you’ll miss her moment while another underused Giancarlo Esposito who plays Jorge, is the head of a small rag-tag band of survivors who have managed to use the Cranks in their favor. What follows with Jorge makes for arguably the most exciting scene in the movie as Thomas and his team join Jorge and his daughter, choosing to led them to The Right Arm, but just as WCKD finds them.
Overstuffed and padded out, the film abandons the mystery and discovery of the first installment, the maze and Grievers are never mentioned, it introduces an entirely new zombie element and allows no time to develop any of the characters or relationships. It takes itself far too seriously and sadly, abandons the metaphors and symbolism that were so keenly obvious in the first, comparing the experience to growing up (read more here). Disappointing but pretty to look at, The Scorch Trials is nothing more than a big, bulky collection of been there done that moments and fails to cultivate upon the interest generated from the first movie. Let’s see what the third one can do.