Thankfully, The Scorch Trials, the follow-up to last year’s surprisingly solid The Maze Runner, is not a retread of the first film. The characters aren’t dumped into a brand new maze where they’re forced to go through heightened versions of the same obstacles. Instead, this entry is a chase film, with the survivors of the first film running from location to location. Think of it as Mad Max: Fury Road for someone with ADHD – a new location every 10-20 minutes! Unfortunately, The Scorch Trials suffers from a severe case of “Middle Film Syndrome,” and the chases are pretty much all the film has to offer.
After escaping the maze in the last film, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and the other survivors find themselves in the “Scorch,” a vast desert that contains the remains of the world following a solar flare that destroyed nearly everything. The flare is also responsible for a virus that turns people into zombie-like creatures called “Cranks.” The kids are brought into a secret base where they’re told that the days of them being tested by WCKD (World Catastrophe Killzone Division, because it’s easier to create a name out of the acronym that totally conveys the actions of the group) are over.
Ha. A likely story.
It turns out the base is actually run by WCKD, and the kids barely manage to escape the facility. That leaves them out in the Scorch, in search of a phantom group called the Right Arm that works as a resistance army to WCKD’s domination.
The Scorch Trials is forced to exist in the shadow of its predecessor, which created a story that was equal parts mystery and character piece. The mystery was teased out in solid increments over the film, and when the mystery wasn’t in play, time was spent developing these characters. The character work here is gone, and the revelations that The Maze Runner offered have been replaced by a series of reversals. Instead of building a solid story, The Scorch Trials‘ framework essentially shifts the characters from one set piece to another for over two hours.
At least the set pieces are well done. Wes Ball returns as director, and he knows how to construct these sequences so that they’re genuinely thrilling. A lot of YA films in this vein are labeled “action,” but they only offer a handful of anything resembling an action sequence. Under Ball’s direction, this series is legitimately an action/adventure series. Ball’s talent extends beyond the action scenes, though. Even without the benefit of more character work this time, he has a strong cast, and he gets good performances from both the returning cast members and the film’s many new (mostly adult) additions. He also adapts to the shift in setting, from the confined Glade and maze of The Maze Runner to the open deserts that dominate this film. There’s one shot in particular that stands out, as the kids walk along the crest of a dune after leaving a friend behind to commit suicide. They stop at the crack of a pistol, and the way it’s shot, it’s a powerful moment.
If only Ball’s commitment was shared by screenwriter TS Nowlin. What he gives for the script is a mess. There’s a lot of plot that he rushes through, with little of it connecting from scene to scene. Worse, the answers to the mysteries carried over from The Maze Runner just don’t make sense. For starters: if WCKD is testing on kids who have an immunity to the Flare virus, why are they being thrown into mazes with deadly spider robots? Why would WCKD pretend to be an opposition group if they’re going to continue testing kids? Why only test a handful at a time? It’s best to ignore the nonsensical mythology these films are generating, and that’s easy to some degree, thanks to Ball’s talented work.
The film ends with the characters finally stopping their run away from WCKD, after a betrayal that’s meant to be surprising (but based on how the character in question is treated in the film, it’s not). The final shot is basically a setup for the final film in the series, The Death Cure: a character asks Thomas, “So what’s your plan?” Thomas doesn’t answer before the film cuts to black, but in that moment, it finally feels like the film and series are heading somewhere. It’s a flaw that in a weaker series would prove fatal. The Maze Runner‘s quality, and the strengths of this weaker sequel, give The Death Cure some wiggle room. Here’s hoping they capitalize on it.