The Maze Runner was a lovely surprise — a teenage adaptation that refused to overly explain itself, letting our uncertainty about its bewildering futuristic world reflect the characters’ own. In it, a group of amnesiac young men were trapped in an enclosed glade, with a mysterious and deadly maze as their sole means of escape — an intriguing dysbropia with an existential spin.
But then The Maze Runner went and did something that wasn’t supposed to happen: It let them escape from the maze. At the end of the film, our heroes stepped out into a fiery apocalypse, with futuristic soldiers and helicopters and whatnot all around the place. The stage was set for what would certainly be a bunch of world-building, over-insistent sequels with not much of the lean charm of the first one.
Now the first of those sequels is here, and for much of its first half, The Maze Runner The Scorch Trials fulfills all of our worst fears about where this story would go (especially for those of us who haven’t read the original James Dashner YA novels). As the film begins, our protagonist from the first movie, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), and his friends Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Minho (Ki Hong Lee), Frypan (Dexter Darden), Winston (Alexander Flores), along with Teresa (Kaya Scodelario, the only girl in their gang), get a brief glimpse of the wasteland that the Earth has become. Blasted cityscapes? Check. Zombies? Check.
Then they’re whisked away by WCKD (World Catastrophe Killzone Department), the mysterious organization responsible for putting them in the maze in the first place. (Militaristic, fascist plutocrats? Check.) They’re housed in a huge complex, where they join bunch of other kids; there were apparently various different labyrinths. Occasionally, some of the kids are rounded up by WCKD and taken away — we’re not sure where to. (Human experimentation? Check.)
Nevertheless, Thomas and his friends don’t want to wait to figure it out. They escape from WCKD and head out into the Scorch, the aforementioned wasteland. It’s a deadly but thoroughly predictable postapocalyptic landscape: The rivers have become deserts. There are crazy lightning storms. (Environmental devastation? Check.) And more zombies. It’s an all-of-the-above sci-fi dystopia.
There’s very little development to these characters, which is probably okay for those who remember the original film well, not so much for those of us who don’t. O’Brien, who gave Thomas a likable desperation in the first film, here goes a little too often to his signature move: running with his arms flailing and his mouth wide open. And so, The Scorch Trials starts to peter out under the weight of its meaninglessness and sheer unoriginality.
But then, something happens.
Basically, The Scorch Trials makes up for the humdrum YApocalypse of its first half by going a bit bonkers in its second. We get underground, rat-eating, mutant root zombies. We get Barry Pepper with a Gatling gun. We get a demented rave that would make Saturday Night Live’s Stefon proud. (“This one has green aphrodisiacs, deadly zombies on chains, and Alan Tudyk in velvet.”)
As our young boys find others out there in the Scorch, the story loosens up and starts to have fun, with admirable assists from a series of brilliant character actors. So aside from the early-mentioned Tudyk and Pepper, Giancarlo Esposito makes his entrance as a wasteland pirate, and Lili Taylor as a resistance leader. Character actors collecting paychecks in YA adaptations are nothing new; a friend once called the Harry Potter series “a retirement plan for the Royal Shakespeare Company.” But they’re especially welcomed in this case, as they make up for the movie’s thin script and the younger actors’ mostly unknown performances by letting their own personas fill the void.
Meanwhile, director Wes Ball brings the right level of energy, at least to the second half. Many of the action setpieces are derivative, to be sure, with echoes of everything from Transformers: Dark of the Moon to Terminator Genisys, but they’re effective nevertheless.
And he seems to have grown as a choreographer of chaos since the first film, which was often incoherent when it came to chases and fights. Now he keeps stuffs moving without forsaking clarity, which is all the more compelling given the far wider scale of this production.