Film Review: ‘Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials’

Maze Runner Scorch Trials Trailer
Couretsy of 20th Century Fox

The latest 'Maze Runner' movie succeeds well enough as derivative survival-horror-action thrillers go, but makes for an unsatisfying, confusing sequel.

In a 1939 short story by lifelong labyrinth aficionado Jorge Luis Borges, the king of Babylonia attempts to embarrass his guest, the king of the Arabs, by stranding him in a convoluted maze he’s constructed at his palace. Furious, the Arabian king responds by sacking Babylonia, riding the rival king out into the middle of the desert and leaving him to die, saying, “Allow me to show you my labyrinth.” Though lacking in Borges’ ironic symmetry, Wes Ball’s “Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials,” a sequel to last year’s YA adaptation “The Maze Runner,” pulls the exact same switcheroo. Containing no mazes but plenty of running, the film takes the original’s surviving characters and drops them into the middle of an entirely different type of movie, this one a desert-set zombie chase. Generally successful on its own as a strange survival-horror-action film for the pre-college set, but without making much sense at all as part of a larger narrative, “The Scorch Trials” should ensnare a solid chunk of its predecessor’s $340 million worldwide haul.

With the all-conquering “Hunger Games” series nearing its final stretch, fellow dystopian teenage sci-fi sagas “Maze Runner” and “Divergent” seem equally poised to succeed it, but the former has one key advantage. Both series’ premises are asinine, but “Divergent” is quite conscientious about thoroughly explaining its asinine premise right from the start, whereas “Maze Runner” at least sustains a bit of curiosity by leaving its characters and its audience completely in the dark about why anything is happening, and what any of it could possibly mean. (Furthermore, this film makes some rather significant changes to the basic plot of James Dashner’s book, meaning those who did read it will be almost as confused as those who did not.)

“The Scorch Trials” picks up mere minutes after the first film ended, as protagonist Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and his band of fellow teenage “Gladers” are transported by helicopter to a remote fortified outpost. The group — also comprising Ki Hong Lee, Dexter Darden, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Alexander Flores and Kaya Scodelario as Teresa, the last film’s lone femme — has just escaped from a maze full of monster machines created as a test by the shadowy WCKD organization, which hopes to harness their immunity to “the flare,” a zombie-like virus that, along with an actual solar flare, has left the world barren and inhospitable.

(Not explained in this film: exactly how the previous film’s maze was supposed to benefit anyone. On another note, likewise not mentioned in this film, WCKD apparently stands for “World Catastrophe Killzone Department,” which would be a terrible name for a government agency even if its acronym weren’t pronounced like “wicked.”)

Now, however, they’re in the company of Janson (Aidan Gillen), an operative of indistinct accent who claims to be from a rival organization, and they’ve been united with others who escaped similar mazes. You’d think that a bunch of teenagers, all of whom were recently kidnapped and stranded to fight for their lives at the behest of a sinister paramilitary organization, would be at least a little suspicious of a supposedly different paramilitary operation that keeps them in close confinement and takes a handful of kids away each night for some sort of “promotion,” never to be seen again. But the promise of hot showers and cafeteria food pacifies everyone except Thomas and Aris (Jacob Lofland), a jittery, solitary type who’s been at the facility longer than anyone else.

After some sleuthing through airshafts, the two discover that Janson is in league with WCKD head honcho Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson), and the departed maze runners have been strung up in a laboratory, “Matrix”-style, so WCKD can slowly drain them of their precious immunity fluids. The Gladers and Aris stage a daring jailbreak and escape into “the Scorch,” the sun-baked desert landscape that has overtaken the world’s cities.

Taking shelter from the elements in a buried shopping mall, the group awaken a swarm of vicious zombies — the film calls them “Cranks,” though they’re in no way distinguishable from any of the other zombie hordes that have shuffled across screens over the past decade — who give chase and manage to snag one unlucky Glader. (The septet learns the hard way that not all of them are immune to the contagion, and the infected member’s tearful, lonely suicide is the first of several surprisingly brutal moments here.) With no other option, the group decides to head to the far-off mountains, where a mythical resistance group called the Right Hand may or may not offer sanctuary.

Even with the threat of zombies and WCKD search helicopters in hot pursuit, the film starts to become a literal slog as they trudge through the desert, until they stumble upon the tumbledown hideout of mincing gang boss Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito) and his rifle-toting surrogate daughter, Brenda (Rosa Salazar). Evidently the only humans left on earth with a sense of humor, the pair may be just the guides to take the group to the Right Hand, or they may sell them back to WCKD for a finder’s fee. (Esposito is his usual charming self here, while the swaggering, sarcastic Salazar — whose head-turning 2015 also includes stints in “Insurgent” and SXSW standout “Night Owls” — almost single-handedly shakes the film out of its solemn self-seriousness.)

Despite an overreliance on shaky-cam quick cuts, Ball stages a number of effective sequences, particularly a zombie pursuit up through a toppled skyscraper that relies more on ace production design than CGI to build believability. He also makes time for a few scenes that are so cheekily weird they may as well come from a different film. In one, Jorge plays the entirety of Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight” over a loudspeaker during a firefight; in another, Thomas and Brenda take some sort of hallucinogen and stumble around a decadent post-apocalyptic rave.

Stranger than either of those scenes, however, is the fact that for an incident-packed 131-minute film, “The Scorch Trials” offers virtually no character development and only hints of plot advancement, mostly just functioning to move a group of obliquely motivated characters from one place to another without giving much clue where the whole thing is headed. The first “Maze Runner” managed to pilfer elements from both “Lord of the Flies” and “Cube” to build a halfway believable teenage hierarchy confronted with a mysterious yet tangible obstacle; here, there’s little real sense of group dynamics, and the primary characters are all purely reactive, simply trudging from one horror to the next waiting for someone to tell them what’s going on.

Of course, they’ll presumably get their answers when the final installment — which has not yet been split into two parts — arrives in 2017. But there’s only so long viewers will keep scurrying around the filmmakers’ little maze before demanding the damn pellet already.

Film Review: 'Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials'

Reviewed at 20th Century Fox Studios, Los Angeles, Sept. 4, 2015. MPAA rating: PG-13. Running time: 131 MIN.

Production

A 20th Century Fox release of a Gotham Group/Temple Hill Entertainment production. Produced by Ellen Goldsmith-Vein, Wyck Godfrey, Marty Bowen, Lee Stollman, Joe Hartwick Jr.

Crew

Directed by Wes Ball. Screenplay, T.S. Nowlin, based on the novel "The Scorch Trials" by James Dashner. Camera (color), Gyula Pados; editor, Don Zimmerman; music, John Paesano; production designer, Daniel T. Dorrance; costume designer, Sanja Milkovic Hays; art director, Andrew Max Cahn; sound, Paul Ledford; re-recording mixers, Ron Bartlett, D.M. Hemphill; visual effects, Richard E. Hollander; assistant director, Justin Muller; casting, Denise Chamian.

With

Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Giancarlo Esposito, Aidan Gillen, Barry Pepper, Rosa Salazar, Lili Taylor, Patricia Clarkson, Ki Hong Lee, Dexter Darden, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Alexander Flores, Jacob Lofland.

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  1. Christie Pebbel says:

    I just wanted to clarify that it’s called the Right Arm (not the Right Hand)

  2. Brianna says:

    It was said in the first movie that they were put in the glade/maze to measure their brain activity to see if they had what it takes to be the “cure” also the other gladers in Janson’s hideout did not escape, they were rescued after Thomas and his friends got out (they were the only ones to get out on their own)

  3. fool says:

    I watched the first one in the theater, and it was OK. They said the kids had to be strengthened by the maze running in order to survive the dangerous wold they now live in.

    After seeing the trailer for the Scorch Trials, I was not impressed, so I didn’t see it. Sure enough, today someone told me that the Scorch Trials would “help you to understand the first one”. Having nothing better to do I watched it today–boy was that a bum steer.

    It turns out it’s all about the zombie-immunity in their bloodstream, so the maze running in the first movie was a smokescreen.

    In reality, the whole thing is a cluster-%@&$. Sorry.

  4. Alicia says:

    In the scorch trials. They are 8 who escaped but when winston died theyre only 6( minho,thomas,teresa,siggy,nwet, and aris). If you notice, who and what happened to the child?

    • Holly says:

      I was wondering the same thing. If you watch the trailer on YouTube (2:33 long) the eighth kid gets attacked instead of Newt and is pulled over the edge when they’re escaping. I thought way more people would of noticed this major mistake.

  5. Brooklynn says:

    I will start off by saying that I am a huge fan of the Maze Runner Trilogy. I have read both the books as well as the watched both movies up to date, and if I had to rate the movies out of 5, I would definitely give it 5 stars.
    Now you might be saying that I am biased simply because I am a fan, and that I am completely wrong because the movies didn’t even follow to books, but here’s why I would rate it 5 out of 5.
    Despite what many other fans believe, I honestly love it when the movies are different than the books. I’m not saying that the books are horrible in any way, but if movies followed the plots of the books exactly, up to the smallest detail, then it would be, well… Boring.
    When changes are introduced into the movies, it leaves everyone in the audience hanging, whereas if they were to follow every detail from the books, those who have read the books already know what is going to happen and therefore, they aren’t as surprised of course.
    Movies differentiate from the books because they are supposed to captivate and evoke emotion in the viewers. If you already know what’s going to happen, it’s not the same.
    So now that you understand why I would give this movie 5 stars, you can decide for yourself whether I’m crazy.
    The way I see it, you sort of get two versions of one story. You read the books, and you are shocked over the events. Then you watch the movie, and you realize that it’s different and you can experience it all over again.
    I don’t see why people NEED the movies to be spot on. You already know what’s going to happen, so let the producers spice it up for you and stop complaining.
    Take it from me, who has read the series and absolutely loved it yet has managed to watch the movies without a complaint because I can see the positive in the adaptions. I would be bored to death if they didn’t change it, and there are honestly some things that I love in the movie much better than in the book.
    People always tend to see the negative in such movies, but see it from my perspective, and you might just appreciate imagination a little bit more.

  6. Dylan says:

    So after reading both the hunger games trilogy and the first two books of the maze runner i have to say that THG at least followed some of the book for most of their films, were as TMR followed the first book decently were as this sequel sucked remarkably not only did they throw the book away they didn’t even answer any of the questions the first movie created. I have to say if they would’ve followed the book even a little bit this sequel would’ve been way better. they had so much potential for this movie and they just tossed it down the drain.

  7. ella says:

    this was the worst book to movie adaption ive ever seen but i dont hate the plot line that they chose for the movie but i still like the book better.

  8. Michael says:

    One of the worst screen adaptation of a book that I’ve seen in a long time. If you want to see a movie that is loosely based off a book, I still wouldn’t see Scorch Trials. I expect very little when it comes to movies based off of books, but I haven’t seen such a poor adaptation since Starship Trooper. If you’re a fan of the series, then you will find that T.S. Nowlin and Fox did a terrible job. It is just another attempt at capitalizing on an already successful franchise. If you want to see a movie with some action and little plot, then you will enjoy Scorch Trials.

  9. just watched this movie call “The Scorch Trials ” one of the worst movie I ever see in my life.

  10. greg skorich says:

    second movie in a series of three so I didn’t expect much from the film but still liked it much better than the hunger games series.

    • mtswiz101 says:

      Really? Imo The Hunger Games movies are way better than TMR series. The first one was a confusion of plot and the second one was just a bunch of good chase scenes. THG is more intelligent I guess.

  11. Annabella says:

    Best movie review I’ve read about The Scorch Trials. The whole time I was watching it I was thinking, “And why did they have the teenagers run the maze again?” That major question was never answered in the movie. I read a lot of YA (young adult) books and couldn’t read The Maze Runner series. No real plot. It’s like they are just making random things up as they go along. Some of the actors in the movie were good. Too bad everything else was oddly random.

  12. RC says:

    What a horrible spoiler-filled review. I’ll never read another review by Andrew Barker again.

  13. Angel says:

    I just got done reading the second book a few days ago, if the person who wrote the review had read it they wouldn’t be nearly as confused as they are now. I’m actually pretty upset at the plot though, this literally throws the plot of the book to the side and they just went in any direction they seemed to deem “better”. I know no movie adaptation is ever 100% like the book, but with the changes they made it takes away a lot of powerful scenes and character development that really drew people into the book.

  14. papiamar19 says:

    I hate that critics use the words”hunger games” every time they have to review a sci-fi movie with a young cast.. Since when Hunger games is a parameter to measure quality in movies? How much Liongaste is paying them to overrate their cash grabs? They should at least acknowledge Logan Run’s, or Battle Royale…if they ever bothered watching those films. TheHunger games is a mediocre movie with an overuse of a shaky cam and poor score. The first Maze runner was much better than hunger gamesalthough I doubt this sequel will surpass its predecessor.

  15. Corinne says:

    I hate that critics use the words”hunger games” every time they have to review a sci-fi movie with a young cast.. Since when Hunger games is a parameter to measure quality in movies? How much Liongaste is paying them to overrate their cash grabs? They should at least acknowledge Logan Run’s, or Battle Royale…if they ever bothered watching those films. TheHunger games is a mediocre movie with an overuse of a shaky cam and poor score. The first Maze runner was much better than hunger gamesalthough I doubt this sequel will surpass its predecessor.

    • mtswiz101 says:

      No, you don’t understand. They’re using the Hunger Games because it was basically the only very successful YA book to movie adaptation. Battle Royale, first off, isn’t YA. It most certainly also isn’t for teens. Since the Maze Runner, Divergent, and The Hunger Games are all so similar in genre, they are going to be compared. Deal with it.

      Also, what? Don’t get butthurt over a bad review. It’s obvious that THG is superior to the Maze Runner movies. Score and all.

      • mtswiz101 says:

        I hate this reply system, lol.
        @Corinne
        I’m not being paid. I just find it obsurd that someone would find this confusing blob of plot to be better than the Hunger Games. Smh.
        Uh, actually it is superior. The ratings and box office say so. I doubt that you’ve attended a film school.

      • Corinne says:

        how much is lionsgate paying YOU? Or Jennifer Lawrence PR team? it’s not superior IF you have attended film school like I have you would know.

      • mtswiz101 says:

        @Kirk
        I agree, haha.

      • Kirk says:

        @Kawthar Bakhach
        Wait, you think that the first movie not only was better than the first Hunger Games, but the whole series? Can I have whatever you’re on? Lol.

      • Kawthar Bakhach says:

        personally, I thought Maze Runner was WAY better executed than the Hunger Games movies.

  16. Bill B. says:

    The first Maze Runner was decent and much better than the Divergent series, but neither were exactly what one could call good films. This sounds a tad more interesting. There’s another Hunger Games?! Good god, will these things never stop?

  17. Peter says:

    “which has not yet been split into two parts”

    And that tells me how exactly you view YA films… How cynical.

    • cadavra says:

      Right, because the actual splitting of one property into two movies is NOT cynical. (eyeroll)

      • cadavra says:

        You wouldn’t have had to explain it if you understood the concept of sarcasm.

      • Peter says:

        The Maze Runner team made it pretty clear they aren’t splitting it into 2 parts, yet they had to bring that up because they only view these movies cynically. Can’t believe I had to explain that….

  18. Marti723 says:

    I know this movie is gonna be the best one from the series…

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