Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
MAZE RUNNER: THE SCORCH TRAILS | 131 min | PG-13
Director: Wes Ball
Writer: T.S. Nowlin
Cast: Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Nathalie Emmanuel, Aidan Gillen, Patricia Clarkson, Katherine McNamara, Ki Hong Lee, Giancarlo Esposito, Jacob Lofland and Rosa Salazar
Dystopian-novels-turned-cinematic-spectacles are all the rage since THE HUNGER GAMES’ Katniss first picked up her bow and arrow. And why shouldn’t they be? The territory is fertile ground for deliciously complex, smart storytelling. They also serve as cautionary tales for how power corrupts and perverts. Based on the young adult book series by James Dasher, director Wes Ball’s MAZE RUNNER: THE SCORCH TRIALS begins on a clear (and clever) path towards success, but due to underestimating the audience’s critical thinking skills, its twists and turns reach many dead ends. Here’s the deal: if you haven’t already been sucked into the franchise, there’s absolutely no reason to start now. While the sequel moderately improves on its predecessor, it’s still incredibly pedestrian and logistically infuriating.
After being rescued from the maze (by a helicopter that could’ve landed in the maze, but I digress), Gladers Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), Minho (Ki Hong Lee), Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), Newt (Thomas Brodie Sangster), Frypan (Dexter Darden) and Winston (Alexander Flores) are forced to break out of an undercover WCKD facility headed by Janson (a Paddy Considine type Aidan Gillen) and travel through “The Scorch,” a perilous desert wasteland. If the heat doesn’t get to them first, the Cranks, humans-turned-zombies who’ve succumbed to the virus caused by a solar flare, will. Their mission is to find the mythical Right Arm resistance army and partner with them to take down WCKD once and for all.
Aesthetically speaking, SCORCH is palpably more pleasing. There’s actual artistry infused into the narrative this time around, whereas before it was crippled by noticeably ropey CGI genericness. Scale and scope have been massively improved upon; practical sets augment the heightened dramatics. But let’s be honest, some of those sets look recycled from DIVERGENT/ INSURGENT (now with sand!). Though the first film cribbed from LORD OF THE FLIES in a semi-clever manner, this one feels like it’s emulating RED DAWN. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; it’s just not entirely original. Pathos and gravitas also have been wisely added to the mix. The Cranks’ pursuit of the Gladers through the abandoned mall is surprisingly suspenseful. Thomas and Brenda’s chase through the crumbling buildings is brilliantly dizzying; but again, we’ve seen it before as it borrows a page from THE LOST WORLD.
Unfortunately, that’s where my qualified praise ends. T.S. Nowlin’s script doesn’t give the characters equal time in the limelight, which is a shame given the ensemble is packed with genuine talent. There are also some bigger name talents that show up and they are completely wasted. Maybe it’s this way in the books – I’ll never know. Regardless, with a cinematic adaptation, why not divert from the original text and get us to care?! We should care when a key character dies – something the swelling score urges us to do. With the exception of ballsy newcomer Brenda (Rosa Salazar), none of the original Gladers get themselves out of their sticky situations by getting their hands the least bit dirty. It’s also about 30 minutes too long, which feels like a studio executive’s decision to make the run time compete with other dystopian teen franchises like THE HUNGER GAMES and DIVERGENT series.
Lingering questions from the first installment may have dissipated, or at least you’ll have forgotten them enough to be entertained, but what remains are bigger picture questions: if the kids’ blood contains a cure for the virus (this is act one stuff, people), why does WCKD even have to test their intelligence? Why were they in a maze at all?! They already have them at their disposal. Why don’t they explain to the kids that their blood contains a cure? Wouldn’t the kids offer it up willingly to save humanity? Why go through all this contrivance? Because then there’d be no movie or series. I get that we’re supposed to be rooting against a corporate entity potentially gaining a monopoly on the market with this cure, but humanity would still win in this fabricated scenario. As it turns out, WCKD is good! Plus, it seems like bad tech that WCKD’s identifying markers on the Gladers aren’t multi-purpose, functioning as both tracking and mind control devices. All of these questions lead the audience to further disengage with the material. We’re left out in the cold, believing there’s nothing lighting a fire under this trilogy’s heels. ‘The Scotch Trials’ would have posed a greater challenge to those Gladers.
MAZE RUNNER: THE SCORCH TRIALS opens next Friday on September 18.
Last year’s interview with the cast for THE MAZE RUNNER:
Interview Pt. 2: