Last year, The Maze Runner proved to be quite a big success for 20th Century Fox in the otherwise dreary September movie lineup, despite being an obvious attempt to cash in on the runaway success of The Hunger Games. With Fox coming off of a rather grim Summer of commercial misfires and bad reviews this year (at least, outside of Spy, their only critical and commercial success of this past Summer), the sequel, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, is at least waiting for them to try and kick off the Fall season right. So far, it’s at least done so commercially, with a healthy $175 million or so worldwide intake so far, which helps to make up for so many of Fox’s Summer movies losing them money left and right.
For those actually expecting an improved movie over The Maze Runner however, The Scorch Trials is a bit of a let-down. Even fans of the source novel will probably be quite disappointed, since the movie adaptation strays pretty considerably from it this time, instead delivering a story that is far less remarkable or interesting. Granted, the deviations in the movie adaptation are to be expected this time, since the source novel of The Scorch Trials is actually kind of insane (read it, and you’ll see why), and no doubt wouldn’t mesh well with Fox’s previous adaptation of The Maze Runner from last year. Director, Wes Ball promises more faithfulness in 2017’s third and final trilogy capper, Maze Runner: The Death Cure, but I suppose we’ll have to wait and see.
For now though, The Scorch Trials carries all the hallmarks of being a thankless middle chapter. It achieves almost nothing of consequence in the trilogy at large by the time the credits roll, and merely exists to bridge the setup of The Maze Runner with the resolution of The Death Cure. At the very least, the sets have a lot more variation, now that we’re finally out of The Maze and into The Scorch, and the movie carries with it a noticeably increased sense of scale.
Sadly though, that doesn’t come with the same boost to the flat characters, trite plot, or frustrating lack of logic. If you enjoyed the first movie, The Scorch Trials is a serviceable sequel, and one that at least gets by on better sets and solid action sequences, but it doesn’t really elevate this franchise above being middling September movie filler, which doesn’t necessarily bode well for the franchise moving to February for The Death Cure in 2017.
The surviving characters from The Maze Runner make a return for The Scorch Trials, comprising Thomas, the leader, Newt, the British one, Minho, the tough one, and Teresa, the girl. If you were hoping for any of their personalities to move beyond these simple, bare-bones traits, well, you’re out of luck. These protagonists are still flat and dull as can be, unable to elicit any kind of emotion or excitement from anyone in their 20’s, onward.
We at least get some new faces to add to the leads for The Scorch Trials, but they register even less than the returning heroes. The movie comes closest to achieving an actual new character of note with Aris, the survivor of another maze where he was the only boy in a community of girls (this was the only other maze in the source novel, though the movie universe apparently had many mazes), but even then, Aris completely sheds his personality once the group is out of their safe haven that they start the movie in. The dull, emotionless dialogue throughout the script doesn’t help either, with characters just listlessly narrating what’s right in front of the audience, whenever they’re not fleeing from Cranks, which is the movie’s word for the zombies afflicted by the Flare Virus that scorched the earth, and turned a bunch of people into said zombies after it spawned from a piece of the sun somehow exploding.
Yes, seriously. If you were expecting any credibility to the science within the science-fiction of The Scorch Trials, well, needless to say, you’re not going to get it. Not even Marvel has this level of disregard for scientific credibility!
Making matters worse is the fact that the movie feels like it’s making up the rules of its apocalypse as it goes along, which also doesn’t help the characters achieve reasonable motivations. The Cranks are activated by light for example, but then never come outside of dark places, or in the daytime (how the hell does that work?!), and likewise, there’s a resistance movement and separate societies that are somehow possibly affected or in conflict with WCKD (yes, it’s ‘WCKD’ in the movies, not ‘WICKED’ like in the books, despite still being pronounced like, “Wicked”), but the movie doesn’t do a good job of illustrating these in any logical way. We’re just supposed to take for granted that WCKD are the bad guys. There is something explained later in the movie that sort of illustrates why WCKD may be viewed as villains, but it’s not really expanded upon before the movie’s obligatory climactic action scene, and then the quick, dirty epilogue afterward that just demands that audiences come back in 2017 for The Death Cure to hopefully get real answers.
Speaking of WCKD, we get an ambassador for them of sorts in Aidan Gillen’s Janson, filling in most of our antagonist role, known as the Rat-Man in the books, until his real name is revealed in The Death Cure, another way that this movie differentiates from the source novels. Janson is a bit sinister, but again, his personality never truly comes together. At the start of the movie, he’s portrayed as a professional, but after that, he’s suddenly portrayed like a trigger-happy, violent sociopath. Those are two traits that don’t go together. Either he’s concerned with WCKD’s image, or he’s not. You can’t have it both ways, The Scorch Trials!
Fortunately, we also get a worthy new addition to the good guys in Giancarlo Esposito’s Jorge, a character from the books who has undergone some big changes in the movie, alongside his teenage assistant, Brenda, played by Rosa Salazar, who actually also appeared in another inferior sequel to a Hunger Games cash-in this year, Insurgent, as Lynn. Jorge is probably the movie’s best character, particularly since we still see disappointingly little of Patricia Clarkson’s Ava Paige, who is supposed to be the big bad in this piece, despite having less than a combined five minutes of screentime between this and The Maze Runner from last year. Esposito is one of the only actors in the movie that manages to channel any kind of charisma in his character, being a curt and blunt rogue that proudly adheres to the rules of the wasteland, though not at the expense of his morality. Too bad that, yet again, we barely see him in contrast to the increasingly tedious teenage leads.
For the most part, we’re simply forced to suffer through the same sleepwalking performances and wafer-thin characters that already plagued The Maze Runner last year. Even during dramatic moments and big twists, the characters don’t register any real emotion, or provide any reasonable justification for their separate motivations. They just say things, and the audience is expected to accept them. This is why the Maze Runner movies, like the Divergent movies that ride the Hunger Games coattails with them, still sit firmly in the shadow of their clear inspiration.
As I said already, barely anything of note happens in The Scorch Trials. Because the filmmakers clearly couldn’t rely on the often ludicrous plot turns of the source novel, they instead have to make do with a generic YA post-apocalyptic story that is rife with clichés and mostly just bumbles around, wasting the audience’s time.
To be fair, at least the more varied set pieces are interesting, and some of the atmosphere from the first movie is maintained. That said though, this is one of the most dull, uninspired middle chapters to a YA trilogy imaginable. Hell, even Insurgent accomplished more than The Scorch Trials this past March, despite Insurgent having a horrendous script and rivaling The Scorch Trials with its own lack of logic.
It’s not until towards the climax however that The Scorch Trials does something other than just bumble around a few pit stops in The Scorch. The movie starts in a safe haven for maze survivors, but the marketing already gave away at length that this is a WCKD front, and the kids are actually being captured and experimented on after surviving the maze, which does… Something. The movie kind of explains it later, but mostly doesn’t. Even the second Maze Runner movie frustratingly fails to adequately explain what the point of sending the teenagers into the mazes is!
Most of the dramatic scenes ring hollow, most of the pit stops don’t feel consequential, and everything just feels like a loose excuse to string together some mildly entertaining action bits. It amounts to a very sleepy, unremarkable post-apocalyptic action story that will amuse teens, even if anyone older than teens will probably just be bored, having no doubt seen far better versions of this kind of story told in other media, not just in movies, but in television shows, novels, comic books, and video games too.
Wes Ball returns from The Maze Runner to helm The Scorch Trials, and once again proves to be a saving grace in a movie that’s otherwise so painfully unremarkable and derivative. Ball’s direction continues to at least capture a good degree of atmosphere and production value for a movie series made to cash in on another movie series’ success, giving the movie a sense of polish in its locations, which helps to compensate for the annoyingly uneventful story throughout much of this movie.
Ball’s definitely at his best when he’s helming the action scenes as well, which are surprisingly intense, and undeniably well-choreographed. The Scorch Trials at least manages to be occasionally exciting, when the leads are fleeing from Cranks and such, but it’s just too bad that Ball couldn’t make the rest of the story any more interesting.
Still, at least The Scorch Trials is easy on the eyes, even if it’s a bit numbing on the brain. Ball’s direction also helps this movie stay well connected to the feel of The Maze Runner, even with the series moving beyond the mazes now. This helps the movie avoid feeling completely boring, but sadly not to the point where it will heavily engage most viewers outside of the action sequences.
The music in The Scorch Trials sometimes achieves a nice feeling of a ghostly, haunting presence within the dead landscape of The Scorch, but not enough to elevate the movie. The soundtrack largely fails to sell the desolate wasteland that the characters find themselves in, or the threats that they encounter. It’s not terrible, but it’s nothing special either.
As for the rest of the audio, it’s pretty good in the action scenes, particularly where the Cranks are concerned. The rest of it is pretty tame though, especially with The Scorch feeling strangely peaceful most of the time, with characters rarely having to worry about real desert issues like sandstorms, dehydration or anything to do with the elements. I guess it’s a teen movie, so that should be expected. Still, The Scorch Trials could have actually made the journey feel like, you know, a trial, not just a leisurely stroll through a sandy place with some zombies and scavengers littered here and there.
The Scorch Trials manages some pretty decent effects, in fairness. Even though it’s far too calm, the landscape of The Scorch isn’t bad, and the sweeping shots that showcase ruined cities do achieve the desired effect. Likewise, the effects behind the Cranks are pretty good too, with the undead being very sinister and almost demonic looking. The movie even shows later-stage Cranks at a certain point as well, which helps give them even more character and unsettling appearances, even if some of this idea feels undeniably ripped from far superior and highly successful PlayStation video game, The Last of Us. If you’ve played that game, you’ll know the ‘inspiration’ when you see it.
The Scorch Trials also wisely does away with the pointless and lacklustre IMAX cut that the original Maze Runner offered last year, simply presenting itself as a straightforward 2D digital release. That’s probably to the series’ benefit, since, while The Scorch Trials at least looks good, it doesn’t necessitate an IMAX release. The atmosphere is fine, but it’s not excellent. Likewise, the effects are good, but certainly not mind-blowing.
The Scorch Trials feels better-produced than its predecessor in terms of the visuals, with the movie taking viewers to more varied, large-scale locations. The intriguing character of The Maze is missed in The Scorch Trials, but that’s ok, since this movie generally compensates with a greater sense of production values.
The Scorch Trials is a bigger, better-produced sequel, but the same frustrating story issues from The Maze Runner haven’t been fixed in this follow-up. If anything, they’ve gotten even worse. Granted, it now makes sense for Thomas and the others to be left in the dark and not know what’s going on, rather than everyone just withholding information for no reason like in the first movie, but that doesn’t excuse how trite the rest of the movie is.
With The Maze now gone from the equation, and the source novel not being very friendly for a film adaptation in its purest form, The Scorch Trials is left as a somewhat thankless, derivative middle chapter in a trilogy that clearly has its most clear and interesting ideas in the first and third movies. It feels like a movie that was made simply because it had to be made, to bridge The Maze Runner and The Death Cure with an unremarkable, underwhelming post-apocalyptic tale that has been told better in so many other products across so many other mediums.
Like I said, if you enjoyed The Maze Runner, you’ll enjoy The Scorch Trials, and at least the movie does avoid being as insultingly bad as Insurgent was earlier this year. This second movie is still quite average however, and if you don’t already enjoy The Maze Runner, there’s nothing for you here, and you might as well keep waiting for better movies to come later this Fall.
Hopefully, the extra half-year given to 2017’s The Death Cure, which is mercifully not being split into two parts, leads to a finale for this trilogy that is more noteworthy and impressive.
- Greater scope in set pieces
- Action sequences are solid
- Good effects on Cranks
- Leads are more bland and chamless than ever
- Storyline is derivative and very boring
- Deviates quite a bit from the source novel