‘Maze Runner: Scorch Trials’: 5 Essential Elements to Any Dystopian Franchise

18 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

“Maze Runner: Scorch Trials” movie review: This maze is even more confusing.

That’s the situation the teenage characters running through the Maze Runner franchise find themselves in in the second installment, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, having somehow escaped from the maze that entrapped them in the first adventure.

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.Wes Ball’s adaptation of the first book from James Dashner’s ”Maze Runner” young adult novels, about a group of teens consigned to a mysterious labyrinth, yielded a feature that proved it could compete for the same audience as the ”Hunger Games” and ”Divergent” series.In this next chapter of the epic Maze Runner saga, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and his fellow Gladers face their greatest challenge yet: searching for clues about the mysterious and powerful organization known as WCKD.At 15, he broadcast his home movies on “a very unpopular YouTube channel where the right person saw them and asked me to be in a web series and it was ‘Sure, why not?’ “Then when I was 17 and just graduated high school, a manager reached out to me” — and a year later he was Stiles in the still continuing “Teen Wolf” on MTV. “It really brings him to a dark place for the first time. The sequel picks up where its predecessor left off, with the young principals running into the arms of a paramilitary group known as WCKD (pronounced “Wicked”), which has been creating sanctuaries ever since a solar flare singed Earth, unleashing a lethal virus.

Containing no mazes but plenty of running, the film takes the original’s surviving characters and drops them into the middle of a different type of movie, this one a desert-set zombie chase. The conclusion of 2014’s ”The Maze Runner” revealed that the teenagers known as ”Gladers” were confined to their maze by the World Catastrophe Killzone Department (WCKD), a quasi-governmental agency tasked with eradicating a viral plague that has killed off much of the world’s population and transformed many survivors into homicidal, zombielike ”Cranks.” Confronting WCKD and exposing its oppressive policies becomes the teens’ primary mission in ”The Scorch Trials,” but this imperative increasingly diverges from the realm of speculative fiction that forms the basis of the book series in favor of an action-adventure format. Patricia Clarkson is the organization’s not so nice director Ava Paige, but the Oscar and Tony nominated actress has only the highest praise for O’Brien. “The young girls go insane for him, but he’s a very talented young man and when all that heart-throbbing stops he’ll have a real career. Which is why protagonist Thomas, played by Dylan O’Brien (from television’s Teen Wolf), who has already seen several close friends die, is attempting so desperately to flee the maze he and everyone else is trapped in.

Now free of their maze after suffering several significant casualties, the Gladers are confronted by the widespread breakdown of social order following a series of unprecedented solar events that have overheated the Earth’s surface critically and decimated many terrestrial ecosystems. Beyond that, because he’s been an influential leader whom the others are strongly influenced by, Thomas feels guiltily responsible for leading them into dangerous, even deadly, situations.

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. After unidentified soldiers evacuate them to an ominous underground paramilitary facility, the teens discover that their group was only one of several subjected to the mysterious maze trials.

Once again, Lord of the Flies can’t help but be recalled as a template of sorts and technical production values like cinematography and editing and special effects are effective and sound, serving the story and intriguing central mystery without being unnecessarily showy. 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. Befriending young loner Aris (Jacob Lofland), an escapee from a different maze, Thomas discovers that the facility is actually a cover for WCKD and that Janson is working for WCKD’s dreaded director of operations, Dr. Patricia Clarkson returns as the mysterious no-nonsense antagonist working for a totalitarian regime, but what’s different about this outing is that it’s slightly more emotional than the first one.

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. It’s also decidedly more adult in its concerns, as is reflected in the prominent grown-up additions to the supporting cast, including Giancarlo Esposito, Barry Pepper, Aidan Gillen, and Lili Taylor. 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. Rescuing Teresa from similar exploitation, the Gladers evade Janson’s thugs and break out of the underground bunker, emerging into the devastated landscape of the Scorch, a pitiless desert. Although it sometimes seems that the cast does more running then acting, the acting is actually pretty strong among Ball’s primarily young cast, even higher, frankly, higher than it needs to be.

En route, they seek shelter in an abandoned factory, where they’re captured by mercenary gang leader Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito) and his young protege, Brenda (Rosa Salazar). But, as with such other youth-oriented franchises as The Hunger Games and Harry Potter, the chief mission of this in-between episode is to progress in the direction of its cliffhanger ending and deliver an anticipatory audience to the doorstep of the next installment. Exposition, calls names of “immunes” (first names, mind you), who are then separated from the group and taken to a “safe haven.” Apparently, none of these brats ever saw “Soylent Green.” What I hated most about this film is how lazy the story- telling is.

These aren’t the slow Walking Dead zombies, they’re the fast 28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead type of zombies – the kind that make you wish you did more cardio before the zombie apocalypse. There are parts of Thomas and his friend’s journey that are interesting but most of it is cloned from other dystopian films we’ve seen in the past five years. Nowlin can’t manage to convincingly frame the backstory concerning the catastrophic deterioration of the terrestrial environment that threatens humanity’s survival. (Some type of super ozone hole or rapid deterioration of the Earth’s atmosphere? An unprecedented solar flare-up?) The evidence connecting that event to the development and spread of a deadly virus is so vague as to appear almost speculative.

As the group’s de-facto leader, O’Brien imbues the role of Thomas with a degree of determined stoicism that appears little evolved since the franchise’s first installment, relying more on withholding emotion than displaying it. Janson represents the Gladers’ foremost threat, and Gillen deceptively displays the duplicity required as a WCKD agent who’s tasked with extracting information from the Gladers and preparing them for the next ominous phase of their ordeal.

Like most YA novel adaptations, they don’t spend enough time exploring that idea or any other concepts that don’t involve running and teenage angst. Cinematically, Ball attempts to sustain engagement by providing each successive setting with a different combination of threats and distinctive stylistic treatment, borrowing from drama, thriller and horror genres. Someone should tell director Wes Ball, whose only other credit is “The Maze Runner,” that his cheapo shaky-cam visuals are so yesterday’s “Hunger Games.”

There’s a story Scorch Trials attempt to tell, but the plot doesn’t sit with the characters, besides Thomas, long enough to create any emotional connection.

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