Monday 19 October 2015

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2015) - Movie Review

With the Hunger Games drawing to a close at the end of this year and the Divergent series only getting worse with each instalment, the third-wave of YA adaptations may soon be reaching its conclusion… or, at least, we can only hope lest we have to sit through the same darkly shot post-apocalyptic analogies for high school for another three bloody years. However, it seems that we may be able to squeeze at least one more good series out of the fad: The Maze Runner.

2014’s The Maze Runner, in my not-so-humble opinion, is easily one of the most underrated films of the year, if not of the entire wave. It’s probably one of the few times that the attempts at analogy with these films has panned out, as the plot works as a surprisingly nuanced, if flawed, fable on the transition from adolescence to adulthood: Venturing out into the unknown, leaving your old ways behind you, discovering the opposite gender in a new light; coming from a bunch of first-time writers under a first-time director, this is kind of astounding. As such, other than the complete surprise of John Wick, this was the film that I have been most looking forward to a sequel to; with how cynical I can be when it comes to my own expectations, it’s rare that I genuinely anticipate a good film these days. So, how does this sequel turn out?

The plot: After escaping from the Maze and being rescued, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Minho (Ki Hong Lee), Frypan (Dexter Darden) and Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) are brought into a facility run by Janson (Aidan Gillen). However, after discovering that Janson isn’t to be trusted, they take their chances and escape into the outside world that was long ago ravaged by solar flares and turned into a mass desert, nicknamed 'The Scorch'. They need to find a way to contact the resistance against the forces of WCKD, the people who put them on this path in the first place, and hopefully find a way to end the Flare virus that has also ravaged the Earth.

If we’re going to go with the reading of the first film as an allegory for puberty, then it’s only logical that the sequel would continue that line of reasoning. Well, it kind of does, in that a decent chunk of the film seems to take an After School Special approach in showing the dangers that can come out of adulthood; namely, the allure of drugs, alcohol and the opposite sex, all of which can lead to disaster and often do. No, I’m not bitter because this unpaid hobby of mine has all but destroyed my social life, whatever gave you that idea? I specify that this kind of follows with the fable idea because, rather than focusing on it in any kind of fashion, the film instead tries to cram in numerous ideas into a single story that it gets lost in the shuffle.

We’ve got zombies as a result of the virus (or Cranks, if you want to pretend otherwise), the world turned into a massive desert as if this is an attempt to remake Resident Evil: Extinction, locales that feel like they were pulled right out of Fallout and/or The Last Of Us (which isn’t helped by the design for the final stage of the Cranks), a random drug den where the majority of the allegorical writing happens, not to mention the original story that they are trying to continue. I maintain that The Maze Runner deserved more attention, but with that said the ending was more than a little stupid and this kind of proves why. The first film worked especially well because it was an insular story, up until the ending; here, there’s so much plot and world development fighting for room that it can get hard to pin down.

Apart from the surprisingly nuanced writing, one of the other big positives of the first film was the cast of characters that helped sell the core idea, most of whom thankfully return to form for this film. Brodie-Sangster as Newt still makes for the best character in the film, acting as the snarky voice of reason for Thomas and Ki Hong Lee as Minho still kicks eight kinds of ass. However, something feels… off about the others. O’Brien as Thomas is still impulsive yet capable as a leader, except here he comes across more as a petulant and rebellious teenager as dictated by the 90’s, right down to flipping off the enemy as he and the others escape. Alongside him, we have Scodelario as Teresa, who officially becomes the token girl of the group and, in a single moment, pulls the single dumbest character decision of the film. *SPOILERS* Regardless of how they try to explain her heel-turn, it still doesn’t make sense. Alongside our returning Gladers, we have Giancarlo Esposito as the weirdly fun Jorge, Rosa Salazar as replacement-token-girl Brenda and Aiden Gillen as the stock villain Janson, all of whom make for at least watchable additions to the cast.

I went into this film expecting something at about the same intelligence level as the previous film. Instead, I find myself starting to agree with everyone else’s opinion that this is stupid on numerous levels. Rather than go through this film’s logical hiccupping fits one by one and turn this into a book, I’ll just use one key example as the mascot for the film’s writing issues. Throughout the entire film, they make it a point of bringing up how the Gladers are immune to the Flare virus and that is why WCKD (which is still a dumb and forced acronym; I mean Killzone? Seriously?) want them so badly. And yet, when one of them is bitten, he starts to turn anyway. It’s just this one scene, and probably only exists for an “emotional” moment where the character the audience barely knows chooses to shoot himself rather than become a Crank, but it exists in stark contrast to the rest of the film’s continuity.

What makes this even worse is that it is so easily changed: The Cranks are already violent, mindless creatures; just have him get captured and ripped to pieces. Hell, it could even bring in a point about how they are still at risk, even though they are immune to the Flare virus. And before I get comments concerning how that isn’t how the book that I haven’t read did it, I’d like to point out how Thomas and Teresa don’t have a telepathic connection in the films like they do in the source material; some things are changed for the better when adapted to film and this is something that should’ve been. However, I can sort of understand how T.S. Nowlin would have a minor lapse in memory, considering he’s the only returning writer of three from the first film and there is a lot to be juggled around here. Doesn’t excuse it any, but still.

It is a good rule of thumb that the middle chapter in a trilogy usually just exists as a tunnel to connect the enticing introduction and the exciting conclusion. As such, this film mostly exists as an excuse to tie action scenes together with the writing to be thrown by the wayside. While I somewhat begrudge this decision, credit where it’s due as the action scenes work really well here. Given how this is a series called Maze Runner, these typically involve a lot of chases and escapes, but each set piece still contain a varied-enough atmosphere to keep things interesting: the escape from the compound, the initial walk through of the abandoned mall, the fire fight at Jorge’s base, the zombie chase through the desert ruins; all good, all memorable. If there’s anything that this film can hold above other series like the Hunger Games, it’s that this can’t reasonably be called a carbon copy of the original film. Whether this is necessarily a good thing, on the other hand, is a bit more muddled.

All in all, considering how much I was looking forward to a follow-up to The Maze Runner, this is kind of disappointing. Rather than keep things focused and continue with the esoteric coming-of-age plot of the original, the film tries too hard to vary things up and it ends up becoming muddled as a result. It doesn’t help that the writing has taken a considerable step down in the process, resulting in some glaring plot holes and idiotic character decisions. Still, between the well-done action scenes and the mostly engaging characters, this will still make for a decent watch for those who liked the first film.

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