Last year, The Maze Runner broke away from the grind of YA adaptations, emerging as an energetic take on post-apocalyptic survival, boosted by impressive visuals and breathless performances.
Now there’s Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, a quickie sequel looking to maintain franchise momentum after the previous picture concluded with a cliffhanger.
Returning director Wes Ball forgoes an enticing tale to stage repetitive chase sequences and overacting, while the screenplay by T.S. Nowlin is weirdly determined to avoid any similarities to its source material. For all the running that goes on in The Scorch Trials, the continuation is strangely inert.
Photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
For all the running that goes on,The Scorch Trials is strangely inert.
Rescued from the maze trials by Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Minho (Ki Hong Lee), and Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) are welcomed into a science facility run by Janson (Aiden Gillen).
Subjected to a barrage of tests and questions, while comforted with food and beds, the gang gradually becomes aware that not everything is right about the outpost, with Thomas making a horrific discovery that puts him at odds once again with the organization WICKED.
Escaping with his friends, the gang enters the Scorch—an American wasteland that offers limited shelter and resources. Hoping to find the Right Arm, a resistance group, Thomas must first cross dangerous terrain populated by zombies known as Cranks, infected with the Flare Virus.
Evading certain doom with their honed instincts, the Gladers eventually come across Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito) and his partner, Brenda (Rosa Salazar), learning more about WICKED’s plan to seek a cure for the Flare Virus.
The Scorch Trials gets off to a promising start, with a healthy dose of paranoia as Thomas enters Janson’s facility. Already subjected to monumental horrors, Thomas is cautious around his new captors, who tempt him with stability and sustenance, while every day a new pack of survivors is taken away, promised transport to the next stage of their liberation. Aris (Jacob Lofland) is an ex-Glader with some knowledge of Janson’s mission, welcoming Thomas on trips through the air duct system to spy on the true purpose of the building.
Ball does a commendable job massaging suspense in the early going, highlighting Thomas’ second awakening, as he grows aware of the danger he’s in.
A sense of exploration keeps the feature on its feet, with WICKED’s influence felt by the return of Dr. Paige (Patricia Clarkson), who’s willing to slaughter all those immune to the virus to achieve a vaccine.
Instead of building on the tension, Ball slowly deflates it with a series of chase sequences that follow the Gladers into the ruins of a shopping mall and through the desert, pursued by Cranks (basically sprinting zombies) and WICKED soldiers armed with stun guns.
What’s exciting at first eventually becomes routine, inviting a drinking game for every slack-jawed reaction from O’Brien, whose main function is to run like hell.
The production makes sure it lives up to its brand name. The characters run in the sun. They run with flashlights, and they run through hallways.
Between acts of evasion, breathless exposition reigns. Thomas, still clueless about everything and missing his memory, is the audience surrogate, pelted with explanations for everything on screen. Much like all the running, the dialogue eventually loses inspiration.
Ball welcomes broad acting from all, with special emphasis provided by Esposito, Gillen, and Alan Tudyk (the king of all hams), who appears as Marcus, a club owner who forces Thomas and Brenda to ingest absinthe before answering their questions, leading to a brutally miscalculated psychedelic scene that should’ve been snipped from an already overlong movie.
What’s especially odd about The Scorch Trials is how circular it is. Thomas fights like mad for over two hours of screentime, only to end up exactly where he began. The screenplay tarts up the adventure with betrayals, but it doesn’t achieve any significant dramatic movement, tackled at the line of scrimmage.
The Scorch Trials is essentially filler before the big showdown in 2017’s The Death Cure, declining the chance to make a righteous ruckus that dovetails into a climatic extravaganza with serious stakes.