It is quite an automatic instinct to compare and contrast the first installment of 2014’s ‘The Maze Runner’ with the arrival of the latest entry in director Wes Ball’s distant dystopian drama ‘Maze Runner: Scorch Trials’. The original blueprint effectively captured a unique time and place of mystique and other morbid curiosities. The audience was craftily introduced to The Glade, a head-scratching venue out in the middle of nowhere while being surrounded by a massive maze that pretty much rendered its survivors in vulnerability and uncertainty. Well, ‘Maze Runner: Scorch Trials’ looks to revisit that same kind of mystifying aura where our young and daring protagonists face the surreal obstacles in a futuristic facility that begs for the same kind of grandiose ambivalence. Sadly, ‘Scorch Trials’ is a derivative follow-up shadow of its former pronounced presentation. This formulaic fantasy fails to provide any distinctive punch or promise to its more competent predecessor.
As a post-apocalyptic Young Adult-oriented narrative ‘Maze Runner: Scorch Trials’ never really invests in its adventurous characterizations that seem to blankly react to the jittery surroundings without any genuine conviction. It certainly is not advisable to saddle a pack of imperiled individuals in a cocoon of dream-like devastation and not have them equally match the imaginative SF sensibilities of their enthralling, enveloped universe. One can speculate as to whether ‘Maze Runner: Scorch Trials’ does any justice to the James Dashner epic-driven YA novels or not. Still, there should be a sense of excitable freshness and intrigue to this eye-opening film project that comes off strangely as remote and mechanical despite the whimsical feel to its wasteland of wonderment.
Sure, some will be partially engaged in the exploits of our young harried heroes bouncing from post to post in a desolate desert known as the Scorch where unpredictable encounters with undesirable creatures and the regional elements are recounted with Ball’s simplistic by-the-dots direction. There will be your predictable share of over-the-top villains, outlandish yet awestruck special effects imagery and a centerpiece for youth-oriented romancing among the ruins. However, ‘Maze Runner: Scorch Trials’ should do a better job in whisking its viewers away in a bells-and-whistles story that should be convincingly subversive and challenging.
Back in the Maze mold madness is Glade stud Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and his band of fellow wanderers in Theresa (Kaya Scodelario), Minho (Ki Hong Lee), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and Frypan (Dexter Darden). The group had learned that their ‘a-MAZE-ing’ (sorry…could not resist) past experiences had been at the devilish hands of the evil paramilitary outfit known as WCKD (as in the pronounced word ‘wicked’). The head honcho of the aforementioned WCKD is none other than diabolical diva Dr. Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson). So now Thomas and his endangered entourage (along with a few more disposable tag-a-longs) are forced to roam in the treacherous Scorch where the ominous run-ins with the resident beastly zombie Cranks are inevitable.
Of course, there are other factors working against Thomas and his Gladers. First, they must constantly hunt for their safety guaranteed in the arms of the resistance faction called The Right Hand based in mountainous terrain. Secondly, there is also the matter of an outbreak known as the Solar Flare virus that is running amok and the cure is to draw blood from those that are immune. The underhanded Janson (Aiden Gillen, from television’s ‘Game Of Thrones’) heads up the laboratory where the shifty agenda for collecting pure blood from unsuspecting hosts is hatched. So the dilemma is presented as such: should Thomas and his put-upon colleagues be the sacrificial lambs in an experimentation that could benefit the numerous lives of their exposed society?
The problem, among others, is that ‘Maze Runner: Scorch Trials’ never seems to distinguish itself among the crop of other YA-related feature films that seem collectively familiar in theme and tone. The long line of impish and impulsive fare that includes ‘The Hunger Games’ film franchise and ‘Divergent’ movie series has already saturated the movie market to the point of no return. Unfortunately, this leaves little room for error for derivative knock-off films such as ‘Maze Runner: Scorch Trials’ to not only echo the same kind of entertainment value but be considered a few notches off the scale in doing so.
T.S. Nowlin’s screenplay is shockingly synthetic and that is inexcusable for an escapist SF flick using Dashner’s colourful and descriptive tomes as its inspirational source. A few of the interesting supporting characters come and go while registering some servicing interest such as the dashing duo Jorge and Brenda (Giancarlo Esposito and Rosa Salazar) that befriend the Gladers en route to their destination for comfort and calmness. Gillen’s Janson is serviceable as the slimy opportunist blood baiter. Otherwise, the main performers that make up this cosmetic caper bring little to uplift this pseudo calculating landscape of imagined isolation and desperation. Somehow, the charismatic presence of both O’Brien’s Thomas and Scodelario’s Theresa seem watered down from the first film.
For the second time around it is kind of a tough sell for ‘Scorch Trials’ to get the obligatory mouse to chase after the cheese in this particular misplaced maze.
Maze Runner: Scorch Trials (2015)
20th Century Fox
2 hrs. 11 mins.
Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Dexter Darden, Ki Hong Lee, Patricia Clarkson, Aidan Gillen, Giancarlo Esposito, Rosa Salazar, Lilli Taylor and Barry Pepper
Directed by: Wes Ball
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Genre: Sci-Fi Fantasy/Dystopian Drama/Young Adult Action & Suspense
Critic’s rating: ** stars (out of 4 stars)