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MAZE RUNNER: THE SCORCH TRIALS
September 10, 2015
It’s rather difficult to switch off your cynical side when confronting yet another YA literary franchise getting the Hollywood treatment in what has become a routine attempt at establishing the ultimate lucrative film franchise for teens. Despite approaching The Maze Runner with utmost disillusionment last year around this time, I was pleasantly surprised to find a redemptive fresh quality underneath its thick layers of obvious and overdone.
The story of a colony of kids who have been thrown out in the center of a maze with no recollection of who they are, how they got there and who’s behind it all, had an interesting Lord Of The Flies meets Lost meets The Hunger Games vibe. The claustrophobic feel, an unusually genuine sense of danger and more-graphically-violent-than-average action for such teen fare made for gripping viewing despite the lack of anything particularly memorable.
This second chapter in the trilogy based on James Dashner’s best-selling novels reinforces some of the elements that made the first film tick and most definitely keeps you at the edge of your seat with relentless action but at the same time sacrifices story and character development along the way. The Scorch Trials picks up exactly where the previous film left off, with the group who survived the Maze being rescued by a tactical team, getting loaded on a helicopter and heading towards what looks like the post-apocalyptic ruins of a city burnt to the ground.
As clearly spelled out by the poster’s tagline, the maze was just the beginning. Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Minho (Ki Hong Lee), Winston (Alexander Flores), Frypan (Dexter Darden) and Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) can barely take a breath before having to face the Scorch, the inhospitable remains of the outside world infested by the so called “cranks”, zombified humans who have fallen victim of a virus caused by a solar flare that has devastated the planet.
The surviving kids have discovered how a secret organization called WCKD was behind their imprisonment in the maze. Scientists were working on finding a cure and had gathered kids who are allegedly immune to the virus and put them in the maze to test their ability to survive. But there was more than one maze and so Thomas and his group are led into an underground facility where all the survivors from the other mazes have been taken to. Every day Janson (Game Of Thrones’ Aidan Gillen), the leader of the paramilitary group that have rescued them from WCKD, selects a number of kids which get sent out for some mysterious special mission.
After such a traumatic experience, Thomas has a hard time letting his guard down and soon becomes suspicious of what’s going on in the bunker, since Janson remains coy about why Teresa is being kept separated from the rest of them. With the help of Aris (Mud’s Jacob Lofland) a solitary kid from another maze who also smells Janson’s rotten lies, Thomas finds out that the man is actually in cahoots with Ava (Patricia Clarkson), WCKD’s lead scientist, and that the kids selected every day are actually being used as guinea pigs to fast-track the creation of a cure.
Learning how he and his friends are going to be next on the list, Thomas leads them in a desperate escape plan but only after rescuing Teresa who apparently has been held in order to restore her memories before the maze. Thomas has been experiencing some flashbacks from that time as well, so we finally explore how Thomas and Teresa, the final arrivals in the maze, knew each other before then, something that had only been touched upon in the first film.
There isn’t a whole lot of story happening from this point on as the film becomes a huge chase with Thomas and his friends trying to find an alleged resistance group called the Red Arm that apparently hide up in the mountains. Along their journey through the scorch they’ll have to face the cranks but also any other hostile human scavenging for survival or playing gang boss in no man’s land like Jorge (Breaking Bad’s Giancarlo Esposito) who helms a group of thugs and takes care of street-smart Brenda (Rosa Salazar) as if she was his own daughter.
With WCKD breathing on their necks, and constantly watching over their shoulders, the kids will learn that probably not all of them are immune to the virus and most importantly that there’s still a lot to uncover in terms of everyone’s agenda since deceit and betrayal define the world they live in. As they get closer to the truth, their lives are at stake, relationships are tested and yet a lot remains up in the air before the screen fades to black.
In typical sequel fashion of successful franchises, the scope and the budget have gotten bigger for The Scorch Trials though still low compared to the average summer blockbuster. Director Wes Ball confirms his ability to run the show with confidence and stages some impressive nail-biting action sequences, relying once again on practical effects rather than CGI overload. This sequel is a darker, grittier and relentless thrill ride that rarely pauses its rollercoaster of adrenaline-fuelled action for ludicrous chit-chats and the young helmer is commendable for making his film look more expensive than it actually was.
Channeling The Walking Dead and The Hunger Games, The Scorch Trials doesn’t offer anything we haven’t seen before but it is hugely entertaining and never dull, offering a couple of jolt-inducing moments and genuinely creepy zombie creatures that feel distinctive instead of mimicking their typical representation on screen. The young talented cast is expanded with new entries and so is the adult one, including the always entertaining Giancarlo Esposito, the masterfully ambiguous Aidan Gillen, the underrated Lili Taylor (The Conjuring) and Barry Pepper of Saving Private Ryan’s fame, who seemed to have fallen off the radar lately.
Dylan O’Brien confirms his star-in-the-making status and confidently leads the group with his everyman charm. He’s believably well measured within his emotional range, making the most out of a script that doesn’t leave much room to character development. With the exception of Teresa played with convincing torment and ambiguity by Brit-talent Kaya Scodelario (Skins, Wuthering Heights), the rest of the kids unfortunately don’t have much to do except running, fighting and screaming. But new entry Rosa Salazar (Insurgent) at least leaves the mark as Brenda, showing great chemistry with O’Brien.
As usual, the script is key and the issue here is not that of translating the source material pedantically on the screen. The Scorch Trials is actually an improvement on the second novel as it diverges largely from it and not only by shuffling things around (like introducing the Red Arm that actually doesn’t appear until the third book in the series). The film manages to simplify the “who’s who and what do they want” rather well by changing things up a bit and in doing so, it spares us from some of the novel’s convoluted plot twists. However, the action takes over too much in several occasions, giving the head-spinning impression of not moving forward.
The story suffers for being mostly plot-based and not leaving too much room for character moments this time around, plus the humorous breaks are significantly less frequent than they were in the first film. Yet it’s undeniable that as the plot thickens and the mystery begins to (slowly) unravel, we’re left wanting for more. Hopefully the conclusion will also provide more solid material for the characters to shine through. In the meantime, keep running…
Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials is released in UK cinemas on September 10th
Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor