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It’s possible both to begin and end The Maze Runner Scorch Trials not really knowing what in holy hell a Scorch Trial is. Would you need a new suit?
Those agile teenagers who survived the Maze, in the first film from James Dashner’s YA series, have now been whisked by helicopter to an underground compound, where they wake up in sterile captivity. As soon as they’re given medical tests, we may smell a rat. What are they being kept for?
Never mind fans of the books: their parents would barely have been alive when Robin Cook’s suspense thriller Coma came out in 1977, and the Michael Crichton film of it the next year. The early parts of this production-line sequel import a little of that tingling paranoia, and have a ready-made answer to why everyone in this universe is in such perfect, gym-buffed health.
Somewhere in the bowels of this facility – which looks suspiciously like the District 13 bunker in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – sedated teens are being kept strung up on life-support, for a purpose that cookie-cutter hero Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) gleans when he crawls from his group’s locked dorm through some ventilation shafts. There is talk of “harvest”. Later in the film, a character mentions her “evolved appreciation of the greater good”.
Dashner’s series – like most dystopian YA franchises of its ilk – has an ingrained, Orwellian suspicion of what the “greater good” might signify: generally adult-speak for screwing over the underclass or younger generation. It’s the rhetoric coming from meanies such as Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson), chancellor of the organisation helpfully named WICKED (World in Catastrophe: Killzone Experiment Department) so that we have no doubt they’re bad eggs.
Clarkson, rocking up officiously in labcoats and snow-coloured parkas, is the arch-villain and very much the White Witch of this series, though you wouldn’t fancy her chances in an actual witch-off with Tilda Swinton on those polar bears.
A parade of other good character actors – Aidan Gillen, Giancarlo Esposito, Lili Taylor, the merest pinch of Barry Pepper – come and go, lending their roles a brisk if serviceable insta-gravitas. Easily the most fun is enjoyed by Alan Tudyk, who plays some kind of club impresario called Blondie with sinister-camp, kohl-eyed relish.
Much of the first hour takes place in a procession of dank industrial sets, in any one of which you fully expect some minor character to pipe up with “This place is a tomb!”. Things could easily have sagged and got plotty in the middle passages, but returning director Wes Ball has his eyes on the prize. The Maze Runner Scorch Trials turns out to be a desert wasteland, all that remains of a crumbling, ruined city blighted by solar storms, which forced civilisation underground. The production design and effects for this apocalyptic terrain are way above par for this sort of thing, and evidence of a much higher budget than Ball had first time around.
As Thomas and his gaggle of companions try to pick their way through to safety, the set pieces arrive with metronomic but still satisfying frequency. In general, when you think to yourself, “This has the makings of a decent action sequence”, you get one – a half-collapsed building, fractured glass, a deadly tumble below, and we’re set for a nail-biter. Conversely, when you think “Oh, now it’s a tedious stop-and-chat so the actors can emote”, you get that, also.
It’s easy to respond to these films cynically as a kind of boot-camp for rising thesps – a chance for vulpine-featured O’Brien, and his British co-stars Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Love Actually) and Kaya Scodelario (Wuthering Heights) to net a fanbase and beef up their profiles. The point is, we’re also in boot-camp for the target demographic: for all their porous, underexplained mythology, these are mainly sagas about friendship, trust and sacrifice.
The Maze Runner Scorch Trials film’s most affecting moment is the fate of one tag-along, bitten and infected by a revenant, whom the crew must leave behind, gripping a pistol. As the gunshot rings out, Ball resists the temptation to have all the others respond in teary close-up, giving us instead a beautiful long shot of them walking in file over a dune ridge, and solemnly halting in tandem as a mark of respect.