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Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

September 18, 2015
The Scorch Trials

So, I actually rather liked The Maze Runner, except for its last ten or fifteen minutes, which were pretty much totally unrelated to the rest of the movie and served only to set up this sequel: The Scorch Trials. I said then that The Maze Runner should have ended with just a flash of the world beyond the kids’ prison, and the rest of that awkward coda should have been placed at the start of the next movie. I still think that would be a good idea, but now it has a new benefit: we could watch and enjoy the last movie while ignoring the fact that this one even exists.

See, The Maze Runner was a nice cross between the ubiquitous young-adult dystopia and a very literal puzzlebox. It played sort of like a big-budget, medium-action take on Cube, but with kids. And, by isolating the story from the world at large, the premise removed the need for world-building so we could focus on the relationships between these admittedly not-terribly-original characters.

Now that the kids are outside the maze, the full force of exposition comes crashing down with two full movies’ worth of world-building. The writing is barely good enough for a single shot, and getting both barrels at once is painful. I can’t tell if it’s inherent to James Dashner’s novel or T.S. Nowlin’s adaptation — he’s soloing this one — but every explanation manages to leave out exactly what would be interesting in the question it’s trying to answer.

Out of the few dozen kids inside the maze from the first movie, we take a Benetton ad’s half-dozen. There’s the black one (Dexter Darden), the Hispanic one (Alexander Flores), the Asian one (Ki Hong Lee), the British one (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), the White Girl (Kaya Scodelario), and the White Boy (Dylan O’Brien) as the de facto leader. Only these last two — Teresa and Thomas, respectively — really get to do much in terms of advancing the plot, naturally. The world outside is a blasted desert called “The Scorch”, populated by roving bands of “Cranks”, who are people infected by a virus called “The Flare”. Yes, this has gone from a nifty little puzzlebox to yet another boring post-apocalyptic fast-zombie movie.

It’s not really clear what any of these have to do with each other, or what history is known to the public who haven’t had their memories erased for the maze experiments. Or maybe there was something at the end of The Maze Runner but I can’t remember because it was in a stupid awkward coda a year ago rather than at the start of this movie where it belongs. And, bizarrely, none of the kids seem to show any curiosity about filling in the gaps in their memory or knowledge.

What we do get is that somehow the kids from the maze — oh, and from all the other mazes, since there were evidently a lot of them — are immune to The Flare, and that the mazes were part of some sort of experiment by — and I am totally not making this up here — the “World Catastrophe Killzone Department” or W.C.K.D. that’s working on a cure or therapy or something. Unfortunately the best they’ve come up with is a serum that can only be derived from the kids’ own precious bodily fluids, which leads to ominous suggestions of “harvesting”. What the maze experiments can possibly have to do with this is left totally unexplored, as is the fate of the dozens of other Flare-immune kids from each maze who were left behind, presumably to starve.

Buried under all this is a pretty interesting debate about medical ethics, circling around questions of informed consent and tradeoffs between individual rights versus community benefits. Unfortunately, all that ever makes it to the surface is a scene where the head researcher from W.C.K.D. (Patricia Clarkson) and a former colleague who defected to a resistance movement (Lili Taylor) spit at each other a bit. That’s to be expected; when the acronym of one faction is pronounced “wicked”, and you have to use a word like “Killzone” to make that happen, it’s pretty clear you’re not actually here to investigate the merits and flaws in each side. And it’s not surprising which side is shoved forward as the unquestioned good in a story pandering to young adults; teenagers are pretty much all libertarians until some of them grow out of it.

I still think director Wes Ball is right to forgo a 3D conversion, but he’s not nearly so good at keeping the action clear and well-lit. The zombie genre elements alone force much of it underground into dark, awkward spaces. The filmmakers still avoid developing a romantic angle between Thomas and Teresa, but then they introduce a new girl (Rosa Salazar) for Thomas to develop Feelings For. And the Conservation Principle of Girls tips us off that something bad will happen to Teresa soon enough.

It’s a shame to see a story that started out so well fall so far, but it’s clear that once it had to actually talk about the world outside the maze the writing just wasn’t up to the task. By the end of this part there are so many glaring questions left unanswered that the only way for the trilogy’s conclusion — thankfully Ball has committed to not splitting the third book in half if he directs again — to satisfyingly tie up all the loose ends is for it to be entirely composed of meticulous explanations of each point. The filmmakers have shot themselves into a corner here, and there’s no good way out.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

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