The Scorch Trials maintains the semi-successful bar of intriguing movie escapism set by The Maze Runner.
After waking up in a mysterious glade, with no memory of his former life, Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) successfully led a group of fellow captives through a lethal maze and out into the real world. Upon exiting the labyrinth, Thomas discovers they were all captives of the World In Catastrophe: Killzone Experiment Department (aka W.C.K.D.) - who was testing teenagers in order to battle a post-apocalyptic threat. Free of W.C.K.D.'s control, the Gladers are rescued by a mysterious third-party that transports Thomas and his friends to a secure facility - where the group can rest, eat, and shower-up.
Yet, when Teresa is separated from her fellow Gladers by a group of researchers at the facility, Thomas begins to question whether or not their hosts are friends or foes - leading the maze survivors to, once again, plot an escape. With no memory of life on the outside, Thomas takes a gamble and leads his companions into "The Scorch" - the desert ruins of civilization, home to depraved scoundrels, deadly super-storms, and the mysterious but lethal "Cranks".
Returning to direct The Scorch Trials, director Wes Ball continues the highly-serialized story he started in The Maze Runner. Like the last film, The Scorch Trials is a departure from James Dashner's source novel series - and Ball again (along with screenwriter T.S. Nowlin) makes significant changes in adapting the book for big screen viewing. The director has developed another solid entry in this young adult film series, moving the plot along at a brisk pace; yet, The Maze Runner series' most dedicated fans will be left scratching their heads at many of his changes. The result is a respectable, though slightly less unique chapter, in Ball's trilogy - borrowing one trope after another from superior post-apocalyptic tales for an amusing but overall hollow narrative.
Compared to a direct adaptation, The Scorch Trials is a better moviegoing experience due to Ball's alterations - with an adequate amount of world-building to ensure the Scorch is a mysterious and ominous backdrop. For many viewers, The Maze Runner delivered a surprisingly fresh (even if thin) diversion - since the juxtaposition of the Glade and the Maze made for an an inventive and downright haunting setup. Still, even though Ball has opened the door to a casual film audience, gambling that passionate book lovers won't get too hung-up on any changes, The Scorch Trials story is tethered to the prior film - meaning that moviegoers who did not see The Maze Runner will be lost for much, if not all, of The Scorch Trials.
On the surface, The Scorch Trials (and the larger Maze Runner movie series) is an exciting ride - with an intriguing central mystery that Ball unfurls steadily through his two (going on three) films - though, compared to many of its YA movie contemporaries (The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Harry Potter, to name a few), The Maze Runner series is severely lacking in themes and social commentary. Despite racing through a post-apocalyptic world populated by warring human factions, frightening creatures, and empowered teenage heroes, The Scorch Trials, like The Maze Runner before it, coasts on overly-familiar stock outlines - both character and plot - that drive the tale forward but don't have much to say (or a particularly memorable point to make about humanity). For that reason, even though The Scorch Trials is a bigger and more ambitious project than its predecessor, viewers who were underwhelmed by the first movie won't find an inspired overhaul in the second chapter.
With Thomas already established, Ball and O'Brien are able to evolve and develop their starring hero a bit more for The Scorch Trials. Instead of a brave "new guy" cliche, this round O'Brien is able to explore what exactly makes Thomas such a capable and compassionate leader. Viewers left pining for answers after The Maze Runner's climactic cliffhanger, will find The Scorch Trials also adds much-appreciated context to the Glader's former association with W.C.K.D. - painting a much clearer picture of why Thomas is a hero (both inside of the maze and out in the real world).
Unfortunately, as O'Brien steps into the spotlight, developing Thomas into a layered paragon, the remainder of The Scorch Trials cast is sidelined. Minho (Ki Hong Lee), Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and Frypan (Dexter Darden) are reduced to expository sounding boards for Thomas and other dialogue-heavy characters - rather than capable heroes who possess individual skills necessary to the group's survival. Fan-favorite Minho gets a few moments to shine but, like the majority of Scorch Trials characters, most often he's simply looking to Thomas to call the next shot.
New additions to the cast are mixed: Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones) portrays Janson, a mustache-twirling security officer, Giancarlo Esposito (Breaking Bad) plays Jorge, an eccentric but (guiltily entertaining) gang leader, and Alan Tudyk (Firefly) is chewing the scenery as a local opportunist/drug-dealer - with brief appearances from other familiar faces, including Lili Taylor, Barry Pepper, and Patricia Clarkson. After the brief introduction of another maze runner, Aris Jones (Jacob Lofland), Jorge's trusted prodigy Brenda (Rosa Salazar) steals the spotlight for the last two-thirds of the film - with a tough but vulnerable turn from Salazar that also sheds fresh light on Thomas.
While Ball struggles to balance new and established characters, mysteries and answers, as well as sequel story and The Death Cure setup, the director raises the bar for action in The Scorch Trials. The Maze Runner featured a number of rousing set pieces, especially altercations between The Gladers and the monstrous grievers; still, The Scorch Trials includes some genuinely thrilling moments (a chase through toppled skyscrapers is especially arresting) that improve on an already entertaining foundation. That said, in spite of the film's massive post-apocalyptic environments, and subtle moments of near-cinematographic artistry, there's little reason to see The Scorch Trials in a premium IMAX theater. A few action beats might benefit from the added screen space and audio fidelity but, for most viewers, a regular film screen will be fine.
Moviegoers who are adverse to young adult book adaptations, set in future dystopian visions of Earth, are not likely to be won-over by Ball's latest entry in The Maze Runner series. The film is packed with thin outlines and surface-level drama; however, The Scorch Trials maintains the semi-successful bar of intriguing movie escapism set by The Maze Runner. Fans who enjoyed that first film have good reason to continue with the franchise - even if Ball has yet to elevate his series as a platform for insight into the human condition (example: The Hunger Games' tale of self-determination versus totalitarianism). The filmmaker makes some small gains with The Scorch Trials but audiences will have to wait for his final entry, The Death Cure, to see if the complete Maze Runner story can make a lasting impression, and provide worthwhile cultural criticism, in addition to action thrills.
Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials runs 131 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of violence and action, some thematic elements, substance use and language.
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