MAZE RUNNER: THE SCORCH TRIALS. Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Aidan Gillen. Directed by Wes Ball. 132 minutes. M (Violence, science fiction themes and sustained threat).
First time director Wes Ball impressed moviegoers last year with his adaptation of James Dashner’s young adult novel ‘The Maze Runner’, and the studio were understandably bullish about the prospects of its follow-up. Here it is, with the same director and writer, and less than 12 months later! Although not as easy to enjoy as its very contained predecessor, it’s reasonably thrilling and very well-constructed below the line.
The movie opens by dropping the audience straight into the action – anyone unfamiliar with the first film or the source novels will likely be left behind sometime in the first act. Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and his fellow Gladers have escaped from the menacing deathtrap that gave the first film its name, and have now been rescued by a small army led by shady operator Janson (Aidan Gillen). They are housed in a compound surrounded by an unforgiving desert called ‘the Scorch’, with a host of other youths who’ve escaped from similar mazes in this post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Janson’s reticence and the facility’s heavy security ring alarm bells for Thomas’ fight or flight response. Some snooping reveals that this is just another outpost of WCKD, the evil corporation responsible for the first film’s maze – Thomas grabs his chums and hightails it into the Scorch to escape. Director Ball has a good grasp on genre tone, and makes appropriate choices to convey thrills or scares or general unease when required. Much of this comes from the impressive sound design, which emphasises audience immersion in the action and varied landscapes.
They shelter in an abandoned mall overnight, hiding from the WCKD stooges searching for them. However, they are not alone; accidentally attracting the attention of a pack of zombies, infected by the Scorch virus, they spend some time running and hiding until morning light. This highlights one of the film’s shortcomings – when one character says ‘I’m tired of running’ later, you totally understand what he means, with the majority of the film’s action based around the not-so-cutting edge act of running. It can get a little dull after the first few sprints, and with little doubt that most characters will probably survive to see the third film, it is a little light on tension.
The team leave the shopping centre and head out into the Scorch once again, following Thomas to the promised Mecca of a resistance in the mountains, called the ‘Right Fist’. The journey takes them through a host of further challenges, including run-ins with several terrific adult actors, before they reach their goal. Giancarlo Esposito, as mercenary warlord Jorge, brings his threatening form from ‘Breaking Bad’ into the role, but his relationship with a daughter figure allows the actor to broaden his range. Alan Tudyk, as deranged and drug-addled hedonist Marcus, is a highlight in the second act, despite his limited screen time.
The final act finally adds some narrative significance to the film, which operates largely as a ‘travel from A to B’ road movie of sorts. However, these twists and action are too late to imbue the whole film with weight, and it feels – as with many penultimate instalments in teen franchises – like an extended bit of backstory for the next movie. Unfortunately, not even some stunning mountain landscapes or the ongoing integration of cutting edge effects can save the story from feeling slight on the whole, and Thomas’ journey as a saviour rarely threatens to be original.
20th Century Fox have already signposted a 2017 release date for the trilogy’s conclusion, making their confidence in the franchise clear. It’s well placed, with a well-oiled young writer and director combination who have proven their worth twice now, plus a burgeoning cast of solid talent. I ended my review of the previous film by announcing that I was looking forward to the sequel. Though not with the same level of conviction, it seems fair to end this review with the same observation.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out September 10.
20th Century Fox.