I’m not entirely sure if Scorch Trials should be called a movie unto itself. The second part of the Maze Runner saga —based on a YA novel series of the same name— feels less like a sequel than the second act of a single 6-7 hour Maze Runner film. It’s not yet clear whether or not that movie would, viewed in its entirety, be entertaining, but watching it on its own would be like opening to a random page in the middle of a novel and trying to reverse-engineer the story’s opening act. (From here on out, this review contains spoilers; however, if you are concerned about having this movie spoiled for you, there is absolutely no reason for you to see it.)
The Scorch Trials picks up almost immediately after the first Maze Runner leaves off. Having escaped from the titular maze, boy hero Thomas (Teen Wolf’s Dylan O’Brien) and his friends have been brought to a mysterious facility run by Mr. Janson, played by Aiden “Littlefinger” Gillen, who promises to protect Thomas and his friends from their former captors, W.C.K.D. (the World Catastrophe Killzone Department, pronounced “Wicked”), and bring them somewhere safe, so long as they behave.
This brings us to one of two tremendous oversights made by series director Wes Ball and screenwriter T.S. Nowlin: as mentioned, The Scorch Trials will be almost incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t seen the first part of the series. The film does not take the time to re-introduce any of its characters or familiarize viewers with generic, but still distinctive vernacular of its world.
For example: If you don’t watch the original film directly before heading to Scorch Trials, you might not remember that “the scorch” refers to the expanse of dried out of desert that covers most of the world of Maze Runner. You might also forget that there’s a plague called “the flare” decimating the population, and that W.C.K.D. had been studying the children of the maze — some of whom were immune to the disease — to find a cure.
If you forget these things, or are new to the series, you’ll be forced to pick them up in context along the way. Case in point, Thomas’ friends and fellow maze survivors Fry (Dexter Darden) and Winston (Alexander Flores) aren’t mentioned by name until well into the first section of the film, and even then only mentioned in passing. The characters, though clearly recognizable from Maze Runner, are elevated in Scorch as core party members.
It’s even harder for the new characters attempting to make a first impression. Not only does Gillen’s Jansen read like a half-written version of silver-tongued villain he plays on Game of Thrones, the film relies on his familiar facial cues to clue viewers in to his devious nature. (Which is kind of messed up, considering Scorch Trials is a PG-13 movie based on a book for “young adults.”)
This brings us to the film’s second problem: a complete and utter lack of character development. Even with a running time over two hours, the film is tightly packed with action and plot exposition, with no time to develop characters or show any real bonds between them.
The film divides that screen time between Janson’s base and the aforementioned Scorch. Even without proper context, the first act in Janson’s base does establish a new status quo for the maze runners: They are no longer on the run (at first) and they join a larger group of “children” immune to the flare. This discovery, which could have been a revelation, is boiled down to a mess of middle-school clichés; including a cafeteria scene that serves as an excuse to introduce Aris, the only kid who shares Thomas’ distrust of Janson, but can’t convince his peers to plan an escape because he’s the awkward kid who sits alone at lunch. The lack of depth of these relationships is a strong reminder that these characters were created to illicit empathy from 12- and 13-year-olds, an audience half the age of the actors on screen.
These juvenile approximations of interpersonal relationships are most jarring in the film’s extremely brisk and awkward attempt at the traditional young adult “love triangle.” Thomas’ pre-maze relationship with female maze runner Theresa (Kaya Scoladario) has clearly evolved into full-on feels in second film, but he is momentarily distracted by flirty newcomer Brenda, played by Rosa Salazar. Though he’s clearly supposed to be conflicted, O’Brien’s pouty, world-weary demeanor rarely varies enough to show any discernible attraction to either woman. He cries for them, indicating he cares, but there are few signs that he would enjoy their physical or emotional companionship if he didn’t also feel responsible for them in a stereotypically heroic way.
Lest we forget, this is an “epic” YA franchise, and true to that form, the chapter two narrative puts a premium on its action sequences, which range from chase scenes to shootouts to… other miscellaneous running. Both of the film’s standout action sequences feature Thomas running from “cranks,” people infected by the flare plague, turning them into 28 Days Later-style fast zombies. While this plot resorts to the simplest plays in the zombie movie playbook, the moment-to-moment action is quick and intense — those maze-running skills come in handy when you have to climb your way up a crumbling skyscraper— and the zombies, loud, fierce and bloody, might get a jump from younger audiences.
Though it technically has a beginning, middle, and end, The Scorch Trials cannot really be judged solely on its own merits. Without the crutches of fan favoritism or, at the very least, the added narrative structure provided by the original Maze Runner, the story collapses under its own weight into a high-budget heap of visual cues produced to elicit memories from of a more complete picture.
Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials is out today.