Movies, Arts

‘The Scorch Trials’: A Complex Maze Of Dystopian Deja Vu

3.5 Stars

This time last year, the cast of The Maze Runner hurtled out of a nightmarish science experiment. What happens when they are left to cope with the real world?

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, based on the best-selling novel by James Dashner, follows Thomas and his teenage companions as they emerge into an apocalyptic future where solar flares have ravaged Earth, leaving a wake of desolation and a plague that renders its victims zombie-like and inhuman.

In the last installment, the crew of young men (and one woman for good measure) found themselves trapped at the center of a maze, which was revealed to be an experiment to test those potentially immune to the Flare in desperate situations. The main tension lies in the fight between WCKD (appropriately pronounced “wicked”), the organization questionably forcing potential immunes into mazes in search of the biological source of Flare immunity, and the institution’s various ethical opponents. It’s a prototypical setup of kids versus adults as the young protagonists meet other young adults from other maze trials. Escaping from a WCKD facility, the maze crew is taken in by factions of multiple allegiances as kids struggle across the Scorch, the remains of Earth. Its language and mature themes often push the bounds of its PG-13 rating.

While some of the talented cast is relegated to wooden dialogue and one-dimensional roles, there are a few exceptions. Teen Wolf’s Dylan O’Brien, whose acting experience lends itself to ample action scenes and a few compelling speeches, shines as Thomas. Among the others of his motley crew are Ki Hong Lee (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) as Minho, Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Phineas and Ferb, Game of Thrones) as Newt, and Kaya Scodelario (Skins) as Theresa. Two other Game of Thrones alumni, Aidan Gillen and Nathalie Emmanuel, and Giancarlo Esposito of Breaking Bad also grace the screen.

While they often bring genuine emotional to basic, run-of-mill teen dialogue, you feel like you’ve already seen some of the setups, but you can’t remember whether it was in Divergent, The Hunger Games, or other young adult dystopian fare.

Although the movie throws several captivating curveballs, it fails to address its most interesting storylines. Thomas, well-acted, has a bit of a hero complex, unfailingly shouldering his group’s every burden and expecting to lead, which somehow goes largely unchallenged among seven teenage boys. Theresa, as much as she should drive the plot as it hints at her larger role, is unsympathetic and largely sidelined, as is her unexplored romantic potential for Thomas. Newcomer Brenda, wading through cliched lines even as a strong female lead, shows potential for character growth in her relationship with Jorge that never quite blossoms. The prologue even shows Thomas’ mother and never again mentions her. Most other characters are one-dimensionally good and submissive, existing as victims and halfhearted comic relief. The most interesting stories yield to indulgent scenes of O’Brien making narrow escapes. Although these aren’t unwanted, it has potential for a deeper dialogue that expands its genre.

But the sequel transcends the initial movie overall. It contextualizes the abstract struggle through the maze with a broad new cast, leaving the isolated, Lord of the Flies-like claustrophobia behind to be given fresh perspective. But it does not slow down by any stretch. Wes Ball’s series is still action-packed (The Maze Runner was his directing debut), and the stakes in the real world of the Scorch are considerably higher.

Ball chronicles the teenagers’ narrow escapes from Black Ops-like zombie hideouts across vast computer-generated landscapes with deft cinematography without neglecting intimate moments. It’s a story of kids, many quite complex, who must admit that they don’t know everything even as they are forced into action. It’s kind of a metaphor for being a teenager, really.

The Scorch Trials is overall an exciting and visually interesting affair—but don’t expect to be satisfied on all counts, at least until the next film.

Featured Image Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

September 16, 2015