Filled to the brim with action and adrenaline, this sequel packs a punch and plays it rough.
Intriguing plot and strong character development led The Maze Runner to a solid beginning despite the thick competition in the unavoidable post-YApocalyptic dystopia genre invading every theater. This strength raises the bar for its sequel, and unfortunately Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials fails to reach it.
After a brief flashback to Thomas' guardian dropping him off to WCKD and perceived safety during the chaos of the Flare virus epidemic, the film moves into the present and picks up where the previous left off. Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) and the others who escaped with him from the Glade arrive in a facility run by the unsubtly sinister Mr. Janson (Aidan Gillen), who explains that they are now safe as they are among the others who escaped and survived other mazes. Janson and his men clothe, feed and shelter the Gladers, but Thomas remains on guard, especially since Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) is being held separately.
Aris (Jacob Lofland), the first maze survivor, notes that Thomas shares the same suspicion that something isn't right so he sneaks into the room that the Gladers share. He tells Thomas that he has something to show him. The duo sneaks through the vents of the facility and come upon a door where other survivors, presumably the ones who were told they were being brought somewhere far and safe, are wheeled into a ward and from which no one has returned, according to Aris. They sneak into it and discover lines of teenagers, including Teresa, strung up to machines and tubing.
Just then, Janson enters the ward, and so Aris and Thomas hide and watch him. Janson enters a teleconference with the presumed dead leader of WCKD, Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson), and it becomes imminently clear to Thomas that they are working together on more evil plans. Aris and Thomas return to the room and recount what they've seen, but the other Gladers are doubtful. Thomas assures them of the reality of the threat, telling them that they need to escape and find The Right Arm, a resistance movement that Janson mentions that he is chasing, to get their help and protection. The Gladers are swayed, and they set out to search for Teresa and make their harrowing escape across the dangerous Scorch.
While this sequel has definitely upped the ante in terms of quick-paced action and adrenaline-spiking suspense, it lacks the narrative tension of its predecessor. With The Maze Runner, viewers were just as confused as Thomas with so much more in terms of exposition to be revealed. In The Scorch Trials, not much actually happens aside from an incredibly long journey that becomes pointless by the end.
While this likely has to do with this being a middle film -- wrapping up the revelations of the first and setting everything up for the last -- this stagnation can also be attributed to the deviation from the original material. While there are elements from James Dashner's book, the plot is altogether distinct and unfortunately weak, causing everything else to suffer -- too many characters are introduced but not developed, the pace is uneven, and the final act devolves quickly and terribly.
However, the film is not a failure, at least not entirely. The arresting cinematography of the first film continues into the second, capturing the misery of the Scorch, the fear of the night and the severity of WCKD. Stunning aerial views and jarring perspectives truly capture what this post-apocalyptic world has become. To pair, the performances by the main cast have grown much stronger. With Dylan O'Brien having a firmer grasp on Thomas and his convictions, we see his determination and boldness come through more clearly.
This leaves us with a pretty movie full of great actors, but nothing else. The young adult dystopian genre doesn't seem to want to die, and so it'd be great if we could actually get something neither takes itself too seriously nor exists as just a money magnet without any substance whatsoever. Alas, this trend of empty cash cow franchises seems as though it's here to stay. It's just more disappointing with The Maze Runner trilogy since it had such a strong start. Here's to hoping the third (and thankfully unsplit final) film fares better.
Images courtesy of 20th Century Fox.