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Maze Runner The Scorch Trials takes the series moviemaking mentality to new heights. Not only is the movie a sequel to last year’s hit YA book adaptation, but The Scorch Trials ends up changing genres, tones, villains to a point, and generally seems like a very different movie than its predecessor by almost all measures.
To a point, this is a virtue; The Scorch Trials at least feels more like a feature-length free film online than The Maze Runner, which played like a sizzle reel for another film that would eventually follow it. It doesn’t shed all the problems of that prior installment, but it’s a start.
After they found their way out of the maze, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and his friends finally think that things are going to turn in their favor. They were saved from WCKD, a devious and acronymic organization that still sounds incredibly dumb when said aloud with menace, and the company desperately finding a cure for the apocalyptic virus inside the movie’s universe. Instead, the half-dozen survivors from the original film’s maze are taken to a compound with others like them, other teenagers forced to fend for their lives inside other grand experiments. But from the moment Mr. Janson (Aidan Gillen) seems to make them sure that the nightmare is finally over, it’s quite clear that the nightmare is just getting started for Thomas and his friends.
The Scorch Trials does a fine job of expanding the larger Maze Runner mythos, even as it repeats all manner of sins from the first go-around. Director Wes Ball handles the movie with quite more assurance this time around, in part due to the rather staggering genre shift on hand; Maze Runner series went from a dystopic story of children fighting bug-like creatures to a zombie film so quickly that the two Maze Runner movies hardly seem like part of the same story. Since The Scorch Trials dives headfirst into a genre-heavy approach, the picture serves less like a story of chosen ones fighting the system and more like a breathless, nonstop march toward the thin hope of survival, one where stopping to breathe for a few minutes can be deadly and most of the world they encounter has already gave up optimism long before they ever showed up.
That restlessness works from a thematic standpoint, but it’s less becoming when shown by the movie. The Scorch Trials races through dramatic beats one after the next, even those which feel as though they should warrant a more patient eye. Lives are lost and allegiances traded, all preparing for a larger showdown in the eventual conclusion to the trilogy, and the film speeds through them as though even at a glacial 131 minutes it’s struggling to fit everything in. Whether it’s a rebel encampment overseen in part by a scenery-gnawing Giancarlo Esposito or a mall buried beneath countless decades of sand and global erosion, the movie’s curious setpieces take a backseat to the essence of moving through the book’s beats as expediently as possible.
While The Maze Runner world has always served as a little bit derivative (again, chosen kids trying to disrupt a repressive status quo, usually via revolutionary acts of violence), there’s an appealing bleakness to the movie’s moral dilemma that two installments have now failed to convey with any real gravity or honesty. After all, this is a world in which kids are used as literal lab rats, running through mazes in the hopes of a greater good.
But yet, The Scorch Trials rarely finds the time to work in any kind of consequence, which is bad when it concerns the number of people killed offscreen (staggering if you stop to think about it for any length of time) and worse when it involves moments like the one on hand here in which Thomas and a newfound cohort end up at a dystopian nightclub where the children chug hallucinogens in hopes of forgetting the tragedy of their world, which ends in a brief freakout and the film then moving on. After all, who cares about the larger world when there’s plot to work through.
While it’s admirable that The Scorch Trials stands on its own as an acceptable entry into the franchise, “acceptable” seems like tepid praise at best. However, it’s the most that can be mustered for a film that, while improving in this arena, too often still feels like a commercial for another movie, when all the real action will finally play out.