Since its setting is a wasteland ruin of our own civilization, it’s a good thing that most of the characters in Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials – a more entertaining than usual YA lit adaptation – are either a teenager, or suffering from memory loss. Otherwise, anyone who could remember Maze Runner’s world pre-catastrophe would spend most of The Scorch Trials saying things like, “Cool, we’re in the hangar bay from Pacific Rim!,” and “Don’t alert those I Am Legend zombies!,” or “Holy crap, we’re in an exact recreation of the best scene from The Lost World…but there’s also a zombie!”
The most believable nightmare future that The Scorch Trials lets you envision is one of a dystopian society where humanity has exhausted the precious resource known as “inspiration.” Scavenging an idealess world for scrap left over from other properties, the second adaptation in James Dashner’s trilogy of books is a franchise entry as blockbuster Frankenstein. Comparing it to one of the creaky, patchwork vehicles from Mad Max: Fury Road is tempting but unnecessary, given The Scorch Trials’ frequent, unfortunate resemblance to one of the year’s most indelible movies.
Turned around in the twelve months since the first Maze Runner released last September, The Scorch Trials must have presented an unenviable challenge to the returning director/writer pair of Wes Ball and T.S. Nowlin. A quick Wikipedia read suggests they’ve excised a number of Dashner’s more “out there” elements (sorry, purists: no telepathy to be found here), but what they’ve replaced them with isn’t all that much saner. Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials is an exceedingly dumb movie, pushed forward by a breathless, please-don’t-stop-to-think-about-this plot, and flat characters.
But the first Maze Runner wasn’t particularly bright either, and that movie made for a nice little thrill ride. With its amnesiac protagonist and obstacle course take on Lord of the Flies, Maze Runner was one of the best video game movies not to be based on any actual video game. And like most real video games, the fun didn’t come to an end so much as run face first into a wall. Teasing future installments is an ignoble, but accepted tradition among all franchises now, not just YA adaptations. But the conclusion to Maze Runner provided no sense of closure, and nothing of value to maintain your interest in the inane, but tantalizing mysteries that had been set up. It may as well have ended like most free-to-play app games, telling you to log back in after a year, then buy another token to keep playing.
To its credit, The Scorch Trials does actually answer many of the questions left over from the first film. When last we left our heroes, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) had led a rag-tag, and uncommonly diverse band teens out of the lethal maze that had been holding them in captivity. When the surviving lab rats are spirited away to a military test facility by one of humanity’s last remnants, the web of secrecy surrounding Thomas just gets thicker. What was the purpose of the maze trial? Why are some of the kids immune to a zombie virus that has ravaged the world? Are their new protector’s collaborating with the organization that imprisoned them, one powerful and insidious enough to openly call itself WCKD? (Even Resident Evil’s Umbrella Corporation would think that’s tipping your hand).
Again, an iota of pop culture awareness would help clear things up, as kids today know not to trust any authority figure played by Aidan Gillen, especially if he’s wearing a dastardly turtleneck. Help from another survivor gets Thomas and company back to doing what they do best: sprinting, racing, and dashing away from danger, this time across a merciless desert. The video game sense of plotting is even more apparent in The Scorch Trials, with the movie being sectioned off like discreet levels: here’s the Doom science facility; here’s the Left4Dead mall; here’s the sewer from The Last of Us; here’s a rave club operated by Alan Tudyk as your bonus stage, for some reason.
Where Maze Runner was surprisingly good, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials proves surprisingly watchable. Yes, it’s often shameless what a hodgepodge of reused material the movie is, but it’s smart about how and when it deploys the borrowed goods. The teens-in-peril hook has more bite this time, with Ball using the Running Dead elements of the story to deliver moments of genuine fright and disgust. (On the whole, The Scorch Trials is a hard PG-13; the script could pay for the next movie, assuming a swear jar collection was put in place on set).
The younger actors still play off each other convincingly, even as Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), the love interest, once more has her word count outnumbered by the amount of times Thomas simply says her name. An always-entertaining Giancarlo Esposito rounds out the list of TV character actors livening up the surroundings. The finale’s transition into a full-blown war movie stretches the limits of The Scorch Trials’ time and budgetary restraints, and the ending once again leaves things dangling off a cliff. At least this time there’s a clearly stated vision presented for the track ahead. Well, clear might be the wrong word: on title alone, do we really expect 2017’s Maze Runner: The Death Cure to be less crazy a mess? At least Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials suggests that such an outcome might not be the end of the world.
Pushing the YA franchise even further into sci fi B movie territory, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials is blatantly derivative but enjoyably silly throughout.