The Scorch Trials, the sequel to last year’s shockingly good The Maze Runner, refuses to riff on the original film’s premise all over again. There isn’t a new maze in a new location and the surviving heroes aren’t going through the same hoops a second time. The Scorch Trials doesn’t riff on The Maze Runner because it’s busy riffing on everything else that’s popular, from zombies to Fallout/Mad Max post-apocalyptic societies to Terminator-esque resistance groups. Not since the Planet of the Apes films have I see a franchise take such a hard left turn on its own concept, although The Scorch Trials does it with less success than you might hope.
Having escaped the maze the survivors of The Maze Runner find themselves in “The Scorch,” the desert remains of the world after a solar flare destroyed everything. That flare also brought with it a virus that turns people into zombies that gouge their own eyes out, called “Cranks.” They’re fast zombies, so you get where the Crank name came from. The kids are brought to a secret base where they’re assured that their days of testing by WCKD (which in this film is revealed to mean World Catastrophe Killzone Division - it’s like an 11 year old named it) are over. But they aren’t! And the kids must escape the facility and then trek across The Scorch in search of The Right Arm, a resistance army that is striking WCKD bases.
The general disappointment in The Scorch Trials comes from how good The Maze Runner was. A high stakes young adult scifi story, The Maze Runner was one part mystery and one part character piece. The mystery was teased out well over the course of the film through escalating revelations, and the time between the reveals was filled with character work in a story that owes a nod to Lord of the Flies. This time the escalating revelations are replaced by endless reversals - he’s good! No he isn’t! They’re safe! No they aren’t! - and the character work is almost totally gone, sacrificed for a breathless pace that careens the kids from adventure set piece to adventure set piece.
The good news is that those set pieces are often excellent; Wes Ball, returning from The Maze Runner, is a damn fine filmmaker and he constructs sequences that are edge of your seat thrill rides, the sort of sequences that build and release tension before inevitably giving you at least one ‘holy fucking shit!’ moment of absolute coolness. And the action is truly adventure action; it’s a lot of chases and jumping and falling, the kind of Raiders of the Lost Ark business that sends kids out into the playground yelling and rolling in the grass. In fact the least compelling action sequence in the whole movie is the climactic one, which is a battle scene that is too standard and not fun enough.
Ball isn’t just good with the action; while there is not enough time spent with the characters he is able to get very good work from his actors, even in exceptionally small roles (Lili Taylor is a glorified extra). More than that he shoots the film in a way that gives it scope, a big change from the confined Glade and maze of the first film. Ball goes very widescreen here, bringing us post-apocalyptic imagery far more haunting and beautiful than he needed for a PG-13 mid-range young adult scifi film. There’s one shot where the kids are walking along the crest of dune, having left a friend behind to commit suicide, and they stop at the crack of the pistol - it’s absolutely gorgeous, perfectly composed and filled with an enormous emotional and moral weight.
The problem is that Ball is doing great work with a story that is largely garbage. Based on a novel by James Dashner, TS Nowlin’s screenplay is a jumbled rush through a lot of plot that doesn’t feel well connected or coherent in a larger sense. The big mysteries of The Maze Runner actually make less sense when their answers are revealed - if WCKD is testing on kids who have immunity to the Flare virus why do they have big weird spider robot monsters in an ever-shifting maze? Isn’t there a cheaper and easier way to deal with them? Why does WKCD then pretend to be an opposing group only to continue testing on the kids, and why do they take the kids only a dozen at a time, leaving the rest in an ugly barracks to grow suspicious? How the hell is a solar flare and a zombie virus connected in any meaningful way? Why do they even want a cure for the zombie virus if people are ripping their own eyeballs out once they become zombies? It’s easy to be distracted from the nonsense of the larger mythology because of the pace of the movie, but that’s Ball being a master magician, misdirecting you again and again.
There’s another huge problem with the movie’s central conceit: The Scorch Trials is an incredibly selfish movie. The kids escape the lab where they discover WCKD is turning other immunes into blood bags to be drained for their immuno-fluid and at no point do they even consider helping anyone outside of their immediate friend group (to be fair they’re in a rush, but it’s not a consideration at all for them). Later, when they learn the truth about why WCKD wants them their first reaction is to fight to the death, saying “WCKD won’t stop until they have us all!” Or until they find a cure/vaccine for the zombie plague that has left the dried remains of the Earth a dangerous place to even walk, you selfish little twit. Whatever happened to the idea of heroes self-sacrificing for the greater good, not just simply for themselves or their immediate friends? Is the idea of saving the world too abstract for a YA movie?
To further discuss this I have to get to spoilers:
The one character who realizes what a bunch of selfish twerps the kids are being is portrayed as a turncoat; she understands that the world is in a heap of shit and if whatever is in their blood can put a stop to that it’s their duty to give that blood. Sadly there’s no room to debate this as she turns the crew into WCKD, who arrives in gunships and blows things up.
That girl, Teresa, is played by Kaya Scodelario, an actress who has a great look and seems to be able to basically act, but who has not been given a chance over the course of two entire movies to do a single thing. She is so barely in this film that, when one of her friends notice she has wandered off in the third act, the audience is just as surprised as they are. Her absence and her presence are one and the same. I’m not sure she has more than five lines of dialogue.
She was the only female character in The Maze Runner, but she’s joined by another woman in The Scorch Trials. Rosa Salazar is Brenda, a tough-as-nails wasteland survivor who I’m guessing is supposed to be part of some love triangle between Teresa and Thomas, the lead kid. I’m guessing because Thomas and Teresa have less than no chemistry and never actually talk to each other; Brenda and Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) have something more interesting going on and she has a bunch of scenes where she’s cool and tough and fun. Salazar has a great look, with huge pools of eyes and cropped jet black hair, and she seems way more capable than any of the maze-living survivors.
Brenda and Thomas get a lot of scenes together in the back half of the movie, and Thomas has too many scenes on his own in the front half. The rest of the characters are pushed to the sideline, especially Newt, the lovable Brit played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster. O’Brien is good looking as a lead but he has the inner life of a cucumber, and after two movies I couldn’t tell you anything about this character except that he’s a brunette. It was the collection of characters that made The Maze Runner work; without them, The Scorch Trials is hobbled.
Other actors pop in and out of the film. Aiden Gillen is the main WCKD bad guy, and he is so untrustworthy that he changes his accent up to six times in any given sentence. Gillen’s largely coasting on Littlefinger stuff here, and I really do want to know what accent he thinks he’s using in this film, because it’s almost global in nature. It is of all lands. The Littlefinger of it all makes him a good villain, though, even though you can tell Gillen’s just sliding through.
Patricia Clarkson is back, collecting a paycheck for a few days on set. Barry Pepper pops up, very obviously happy for the work, and we’re happy to see him as well. Giancarlo Esposito is along for the ride, and he’s actually the best adult actor in the film - he gives his character Jorge a depth that comes from within, not from the script. Esposito is just such a damn fine actor, and it’s clear he’s seen what people like Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Jeffrey Wright are able to pull off in supporting roles in The Hunger Games movies, and he’s shooting for that. I love him for it. Less successful is Alan Tudyk, playing a mincing club owner whose brutalization could spark a thousand thinkpieces, if this movie makes the right kind of money.
I have a lot of complaints about The Scorch Trials, but I liked it in general. It's fun and it's fast and it's well-made. It’s just simply not as good as the first film; while it maintains the toughness and the quality of filmmaking that made The Maze Runner surprisingly good, The Scorch Trials has an unfocused, episodic story and spends too much time on lead dud stud Thomas to be as successful. The opening up of the world allows Ball to shoot really spectacular sequences, like a zombie fight on the cracking window of a collapsed skyscraper, but it also renders his characters as smudges in the landscape, ill-defined at best.
There’s one more movie to come, The Death Cure, and I’ll be there for it, especially if Ball is back. I didn’t like where this movie ended, I don’t like the morality of the main characters and I have lost faith in the larger mythology of this world, but I believe in Ball. And Rosa Salazar. More of her in the future, please!