The Sterling Standard in Movie Reviews 

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20th Century Fox
 132 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: Wes Ball 
Starring: Dylan O'Brien, Kyra Scodelario
Maze Runner the Scorch Trials
For all its futuristic science fiction trappings, last year’s The Maze Runner boiled down to one simple question: how are they going to get out of the maze? True, the backstory of what lay beyond the maze and how and why the teens got into the maze in the first place were somewhat interesting, but, at heart, the movie was an escape story. Moreover, it was a story that had one and only one visually interesting aspect, the deadly spider-like grievers that roamed the maze and had to be overcome. Number me among the reviewers who weren’t that impressed with The Maze Runner.


The most intriguing aspect of The Maze Runner was the finale, in which hero Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and his fellow escapees find themselves being airlifted to a remote destination and realizing that the entire world beyond the verdant confines of the glade in which they had spent the last months, or, in some cases years, was a vast desolate wasteland. For those who hadn’t read the source novels (including me), that revelation did not come as a surprise (I’ve seen too many movies similar to Maze Runner to expect things to be idyllic in the outside world), but I was curious to see how the filmmakers would answer the questions they raised. One year later, I got my answers and found the current sequel, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, a distinct improvement on the original.


Scorch Trials is essentially one long chase movie as Thomas and his fellow escapees find themselves being hunted, mostly by the minions of WCKD (pronounced “wicked”) the scientific agency that created the maze as a test to discover those like Thomas who had the right stuff. It seems the earth had been devastated by a solar flare a few years back, and the survivors were then exposed to a deadly plague imaginatively known as “the Flare.” Thomas and his friends are somehow immune to the Flare, and they, along with survivors from a number of similar mazes are being analyzed to try to discover a cure.


What Thomas doesn’t know at first is that the “analysis” consists of hooking the survivors up to devices straight out of Coma and draining their bodies of blood that can be used to obtain an extract that retards the spread of the Flare. What he also doesn’t know, but finds out soon enough, is that those non-immunes exposed to the Flare become zombie-like creatures called cranks. And these cranks are the fast type of World War Z zombies that are difficult to stay ahead of. But, like all zombies, if they bite you, your days are numbered.


The zombies, er, cranks, live (if that’s the right term) in dark places in the abandoned buildings that make up the scorch, the desert beyond the WCKD facility. Escaping the facility proves surprisingly easy, but Thomas’ troubles are only beginning. Naturally, Thomas and his friends find out about the cranks the hard way and have to run for their lives. Later, they find that WCKD director Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson) still has designs on them and dispatches her top field commander, Janson (Aidan Gillen), to recover them.


Thomas and his friends spend most of their time on the run in Scorch Trials, either from cranks, Janson’s forces, or other bandit types who seem to be leftover extras from a Mad Max movie. Fortunately for the immunes, Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito) and his protégé Brenda (Rosa Salazar) agree to help Thomas reach the Right Arm, a resistance group that’s headquartered somewhere in a mountainous region. The action gets a bit repetitious, but it’s generally exciting, especially a sequence in which Thomas and Brenda try to avoid a group of cranks in the wreckage of a skyscraper. Director Wes Ball, whose only two feature films to date are the two Maze Runner movies, stages the action scenes well and this time there’s enough variety in them to keep audience interest.


Surprisingly, there’s more backstory in Scorch Trials than in the original movie, but it’s revealed to the audience (and, in many cases Thomas) gradually as the film progresses, avoiding any dull information dumps. In addition, the movie is very easy to follow for those who haven’t seen the original movie. One reason for this ease of comprehension is that the screenplay incorporates two very familiar tropes: zombies and the post-apocalyptic wasteland. Viewers can easily fill in the gaps in the backstory through their own knowledge of similar types of movies.


That’s not to say that Scorch Trials is a mere clone of either genre. T.S. Nowlin’s screenplay has a number of original, albeit somewhat familiar elements to it. The movie rarely takes enough time to explore some of the more intriguing characteristics of the new world, such as a night club where drugged teenagers engage in PG-13 levels of debauchery. Still, the production details are intriguing.


The biggest problem with Scorch Trials is its lack of real character interaction. In the first movie, several of Thomas’ fellow survivors were quite well developed, since the film focused to a considerable extent on the power struggle within the group. Now, however, Thomas’ companions are mostly just along for the ride, to add a few bodies to each chase and occasionally provide the reason for a touching farewell to a fallen comrade. The only male character who registers is actually a newcomer to the series, Aris (Jacob Lofland), a comic relief member of a group who escaped from another maze. Thomas’ female counterpart Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) is back, but her relationship with Thomas is, if anything, even more distant. She merely hangs around on the sidelines and broods until a big twist near the end of the film.


As you might guess from the plot description, Thomas is at the center of nearly every scene in the movie. The first Maze Runner movie was far more of an ensemble piece, especially since Thomas was an amnesiac latecomer to an established community and had to learn the ropes before he could lead. O’Brien is completely on his own here, and fortunately proves up to the task. He has a forceful yet low key personality and seems a natural leader for the group.


With Scorch Trials, the franchise producers seem content to emphasize the action elements of the films rather than the science fiction. And, on the level of an action movie, they’ve succeeded reasonably well. Even with the fairly underdeveloped supporting characters, audiences will naturally identify with the protagonists, especially considering the nature of some of the things that happen to them. The final Maze Runner movie, due in 2017, promises some answers to remaining questions about how the world of the films came to be. That wait isn’t exactly spellbinding suspense, but it does hold more potential that some of the other YA franchises that have misfired in recent years. Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials wins an acquittal easily.

Read other reviews of Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials:


Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2015) on IMDb