The latest dystopian young adult literature adaptation gets a perfunctory placeholder of a second big-screen instalment.
In recent years, film adaptations of dystopian-leaning young adult literature have become a trend. As the vast popularity of the respective Hunger Games and Divergent sagas have shown, contemplating unhappy societies strikes a chord, pairing doom and gloom with the can-do spirit of youth. Upon its release in 2014, The Maze Runner embraced both as it trapped teenage boys within the titular space and then watched as they attempted to extricate themselves from the scenario. This time, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials leans less upon the concept that made its predecessor such a success, and more on building a world to prolong the story.
Picking up where the previous effort left off, the second movie based on James Dashner's soon-to-be five-book series (including a trilogy and two prequels) follows Thomas (Dylan O’Brien, TV's Teen Wolf) and the rest of his fellow former glade inhabitants — Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Wolf Hall), Minho (Ki Hong Lee, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), Frypan (Dexter Darden, Joyful Noise) and Teresa (Kaya Scodelario, Skins) among them — as they navigate the chaos that lurks outside their previous leafy, walled-in home. Initially, they're protected from insidious government doctor Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson, Annie) by no-nonsense operative Janson (Aidan Gillen, Game of Thrones), though the locked-up compound they're taken to causes Thomas considerable concern. When he starts to piece together the real story behind their current confines, he rallies his friends and runs.
There may not be an actual maze filled with giant monsters in this instalment of what promises to be an ongoing franchise, but that doesn't mean the brood of adolescents aren't still trapped in a puzzle that they’re trying to work their way out of. In fact, the returning team of writer T.S. Nowlin and director Wes Ball structure their film as a string of escape sequences, be it from the seemingly evil WCKD (World Catastrophe Killzone Department) corporation, the blistering environment known as the scorch, virus-infected zombie-like creatures (or cranks inflicted with the flare, in the film's parlance), a hedonistic party of hopped-up revellers or fellow factions of survivors.
Accordingly, as the central group scurries across impressively rendered backdrops, through just as well choreographed set pieces, and as shot in styles varying from thriller to horror — think sand dunes littered with lightning strikes, shadowy bunkers teeming with potential threats and the unstable rubble of city skyscrapers — with new friends Aris (Jacob Lofland, Mud), Brenda (Rosa Salazar, Insurgent) and Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito, Breaking Bad), they're still simply scrambling for an exit. The Scorch Trials may burst beyond the setting of the first film, but what it really does is adapt the idea and add a relentless stream of movement and mayhem to give the appearance of taking the narrative into new territory.
Alas, as a lengthy 131-minute running time only exacerbates, swapping mystery for action does the film few favours. If The Maze Runner offered a stripped-back surprise in an increasingly crowded genre, The Scorch Trials relies heavily upon the usual formula seen much too often before. Adding complexity to the scenario, as well as more characters and familiar faces, might serve the full franchise of features once it is complete, but it does little to let the movie stand on its own merits. The lack of character development does the same, despite the efforts of the cast, leaving the second labyrinth-focused effort marked by its chase scenes but otherwise little more than a perfunctory placeholder for the next offering in the series.
Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5
Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials
Director: Wes Ball
USA, 2015, 131 mins
Release date: September 10