Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials
2015, PG-13, 131 min. Directed by Wes Ball. Starring Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Ki Hong Lee, Rosa Salazar, Giancarlo Esposito, Patricia Clarkson, Aidan Gillen.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Sept. 18, 2015
There’s a tendency in YA dystopia franchises of crafting a nifty concept to begin with, then devoting the rest of the series to walking back from it. The Scorch Trials isn’t about breaking from the herd. This sequel to last year’s The Maze Runner hardly mentions the first film’s maze, through which a group of memory-wiped teenagers scurried like lab rats, sniffing the air for an exit. The Scorch Trials tenders no first film refresher, so here’s the spoiler: The gang eventually did find a way out, only to discover they comprised a trial group in an elaborate experiment concocted by a group of scientists with a comically nefarious name – WCKD (World In Catastrophe: Killzone Experiment Department) – who were conveniently all slaughtered by the time the kids got to them. Only – gotcha! – the slaughter was faked by WCKD’s chief architect (Clarkson), and the kids’ seeming airlift to safety was actually just a short ride to phase two in the experiment. Still with me?
Don’t sweat it. The Maze Runner series, in James Dashner’s book trilogy and director Wes Ball’s film adaptations, is a circulator pump of joke’s-on-you reversals. Scratch “Scorch” – it’s the psych! trials. To pick apart the plot is to beat a fast path to Nowheresville. To try to recall character names is an exercise in futility. The point is – these kids are on the run. Again. Only this time it’s out in the free world, one ruined by plague and crawling with the zombie-like infected. The superlative CGI work takes the rub off the fact we’ve seen this kind of vision of societal collapse and crumbling infrastructure before. There’s a terrific, pure-action set-piece set in a skyscraper that’s toppled sideways; you’ll get woozy from the M.C. Escher angles.
The trouble comes when somebody opens their mouth and you’re reminded this is supremely silly stuff, and overall a much lesser version of teens versus the titans of post-apocalypse industry – a copy of a copy of a copy. The more thematically and aesthetically ambitious Hunger Games series remains the gold standard. And while we’re comparing notes: It boggles the mind that the puritan parade that is the MPAA gave a PG-13 rating to this film’s legitimately horrific picture of flesh-eating zombies, but earlier this summer slapped an R on Diary of a Teenage Girl – a movie that actually has something meaningful to say to adolescent audiences. Then again, about a dozen film critics in Austin showed up for a daytime press screening of Scorch Trials, and roughly half that number roused for Diary of a Teenage Girl.
So I guess we’ve all got our priorities straight.