Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/17/15 14:47:22

"Dystopia Just Keeps Getting Worse And Worse"
1 stars (Sucks)

Last year's "The Maze Runner" was yet another film adaptation of a best-selling YA book involving a cruel dystopian future and the seemingly unremarkable (though inevitably attractive) teenager who evidently holds the power to bring the walls of oppression crashing down over the course of subsequent films (assuming that the box-office receipts are strong enough). To be honest, the end result was so resolutely unmemorable that the only thing that I can concretely remember about the film was that I did see actually sit down in a theater and spend a couple of hours of my life watching it. Evidently enough other people did likewise because now we have the second part of what promises/threatens to be a trilogy, the ungainly titled "The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials" and once my lingering annoyance at its idiocies fade away in a week or to, it should prove to be as singularly unmemorable as its predecessor. This might sound unnecessarily hostile but what else can one say about a film whose only dramatic tension comes from trying to guess how many times the word "scorch" will be uttered and whose most significant accomplishment is that it almost makes the dire "Divergent" films seems compelling and competently crafted by comparison.

As was the case with the first film, "The Scorch Trials" plunges viewers right into the action with virtually no explanation as to what is going on or even a recap of previously seen events to help anyone who either isn't a "Maze Runner" devotee (such people presumably exist, though I probably wouldn't want to see their SAT transcripts) or didn't watch its predecessor approximately five minutes before viewing this one (something I would not recommend under any circumstances). In that one, a bunch of kids, including the seemingly unremarkable though inevitably attractive Thomas (Dylan O'Brien), have been placed without explanation inside of an enormous labyrinth that would open up for a little while every day to allow them a chance to explore and try to discover a method of escape and which would be guarded at night by giant robot ants or something like that. In the shocking conclusion, they discover that this was all a creation by the top secret World Catastrophe Killzone Department and its leader, Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson), that they are all immune to a weird virus that has decimated much of the world's population and that she hopes to harness their abilities and immunity to help save mankind at any cost. By the way, the acronym for Ava's group is indeed pronounced "Wicked," which might be a little too on the nose even in these reduced circumstances.

Picking up mere moments after the last film, Thomas and his fellow maze survivors, consisting of sole female Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) and a bunch of eminently forgettable guys, have been rescued by a rival faction led by Janson (Aidan Gillen) and taken to their fortified compound filled with young survivors of other mazes. Before long, Thomas becomes the only person to suspect that something is not quite right--he is apparently the only one to notice that Janson takes a group of kids out every night and they are never heard from again--and soon discovers that--gasp!--Janson and Ava are in cahoots and are using their captives in a manner that suggests that "Parts: The Clonus Horror" somehow managed to survive the apocalypse. Thomas, Teresa and their friends, accompanied by oddball loner Aris (Jacob Loflan), manage to blow the popsicle stand and escape into "the Scorch," a vast desert-like landscape that Janson assures them that they will not survive one day in.

Since this is the middle section of a trilogy, one can easily presume that at least a few of them are likely to survive the Scorch intact but there are some dangers to be had along the way, including sunburns, split ends and the relentless pursuit by both Janson's troops and, perhaps inevitably, rampaging zombies known here as "Cranks" because why not? Nevertheless, they press on in the hopes of reaching the mountains and finding the Right Hand, a possibly nonexistent resistance group that can lead them to safety. (Presumably the same focus group responsible for WCKD was behind the naming of Right Hand.) Along the way, they come across the ruins of a city and meet local crime boss Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito--after the apocalypse, there is Buggin Out!) and his comely daughter Brenda (Rosa Salazar), who might be able to take them to the Right Hand or who might turn them in to Janson if the price is right.

There are a lot of problems with "The Scorch Trials" but one of the biggest is the fact that we are now two films into this saga and I still have precious little idea of what the hell is going on with it. You can criticize the "Divergent" films all you want--I know I have--but at least they take the time to explain what is going on to the viewers, oftentimes in excruciating detail. By comparison, the "Maze Runner" films prefer to keep audiences in the dark along with the characters and while that might have been an interesting approach at first, it has long since worn out its welcome. Not only is it virtually impossible to figure out what is going on here for the most part, what little we are able to discern seems deliberately designed to contradict what we were able to glean the first time around. While I will not reveal why exactly WCKD needs the kids, I will point out that they do need to be alive for the plans to work. If this is the case, then what is the point of sticking them into the maze the first time around and run the risk of them being decimated in any number of ways? On second thought, don't answer.

Alas, the film gives us plenty of time to contemplate such notions because it clocks in at an unconscionable 131 minutes, much of which is dedicated to characters aimlessly wandering around mysterious military installations, the desert, a burned out city and the mountains while uttering dialogue that runs the range from expository boilerplate to stuff so inane that you will come away from it quoting the expository boilerplate stuff. Occasionally, the monotony is broken by the sudden appearance of a semi-familiar face, all of whom presumably signed on because they missed the boat on the "Hunger Games" and "Divergent" films and weren't going to make the same mistake a third time. There are maybe two scenes that offer something slightly off the heavily beaten path presented here and while they may not be good or even coherent, they do manage to cut through the monotony. In one, Thomas stumbles upon a bizarre dance club--imagine a cross between Pleasure Island from "Pinocchio" and Thunderdome--and freaks out on the hallucinatory post-apocalyptic absinthe-like drink he is forced to swill upon entry. In the other, In the other, Jorge rigs his hideout to explode when Janson's men arrive and the kids need to escape before the end of the countdown, which turns out to be a full recording of Patsy Cline singing "Walking After Midnight"--trust me, in a situation like that, you don't want to be in the hands of a Ramones fan.

If "The Scorch Trials" had contained a few more moments like these, it still probably would have been a bad movie but at least it would have been a relatively tolerable one. Instead, this is a witless and dour exercise that will annoy fans of the franchise with its wild plot deviations (yes, Wikipedia was consulted in this particular regard) and hopelessly confuse newcomers. The direction by Wes Ball, who also did the original, is as flat and indistinct as the desert vistas he presents (suffice it to say, this is no "Lawrence of Arabia"), the characters are the usual array of walking cliches and, apart from Rosa Salazar (who also brought a needed spark of life to both "Insurgent" and the upcoming festival favorite "Night Owls"), the array of bland newcomers and embarrassed veteran actors collected here display even fewer signs of life than the cheeseball zombies that pop up every few minutes. Of course, it goes without saying that YA dystopian sagas are not exactly in my critical wheelhouse but when the filmmakers genuinely make an effort to present a compelling movie and not just a big-screen equivalent of a book report, I am more than willing and able to respond to their efforts favorably. When I come out of a "Hunger Games" movie, I find myself looking forward to the next installment. When "The Scorch Trials" came to an end, I found myself still looking forward to the next "Hunger Games" movie while doing everything I could to forget what I had just seen.

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