Review: Latest ‘Maze Runner’ lacks urgency of original

17 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials’ is an OK teen sci-fi sequel.

LOS ANGELES (AP) — 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. When we last met Thomas and his teenage companions from “The Maze Runner,” the amnesiac heroes of that dystopian thriller were being whisked away, by helicopter, from their mysterious confinement inside a deadly maze.”Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials”: Aris, Winston and Thomas (Jacob Lofland, Alexander Flores and Dylan O’Brien, from left) discover there are worse things than the maze. (20th Century Fox) CLEVELAND, Ohio – It’s not supposed to work this way.For a film subtitled The Scorch Trials and mostly set in a post-apocalyptic desert in a not-too-distant future here on Earth, it is surprising that this second installment of the Maze Runner trilogy never packs any heat. The second installment, which reveals some of the reasons behind the teens’ imprisonment, lacks a similar sense of originality and urgency, undercut by overly familiar characterizations and dilatory pacing.

As its sequel, “The Scorch Trials,” begins, they are being held in another, seemingly impenetrable detention facility, under the supervision of a man (Aidan Gillen) who tells them that they’re on the way to a “sanctuary” where the folks who locked them up in the first movie will never be able to find them again. “How does that sound?’ he asks, with all the sincerity of a politician. If you can lose yourself in the eye-popping set pieces, and don’t expect much in the way of character development (or dialogue), you may conclude that it’s OK as a sci-fi action sequel. “Scorch Trials” begins exactly where its dystopian predecessor ended, as teenagers Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) and others escape from the maze constructed by a mysterious agency known by its acronym WCKD, which unsurprisingly is pronounced “wicked.” WCKD is working to cure a virus that has wiped out much of the human race, turning some survivors into a particularly malevolent kind of zombies.

Even if you’re not familiar with the Y.A. trilogy by James Dasher on which these films are based, anyone who saw the first film knows that no one in this expanding cinematic “Maze” universe is to be trusted. 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.

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. Not only were they shooting the most complicated sequence in the shortest amount of time, it was also at night in the New Mexico desert, where the temperature sometimes dropped to the single digits. Ah, but lest we underestimate the ingenuity of inexperienced amateurs, the team led by Thomas weighs the pro of escape against the con of potential death facing scorching heat and makes its getaway. Nowlin, adapting James Dashner’s 2009 young-adult sci-fi best-seller, stuck fairly close to their source material as they brought the characters to life. The young people emerge into the Scorch, a brutal desert landscape that offers a wide assortment of dangers – including zombies and WCKD’s minions.

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. As has become commonplace in the cinema, the first fatality on the team is non-white, which merely underlines the refusal of the filmmakers to engage in any kind of creativity. One long scene takes place in a former shopping mall, where the six-member team find themselves on the first night, but the shots are so dimly lit we can barely make out what is going on, and it is laughable that this refuge is conveniently located less than a stone’s throw from the detention facility from which they had just escaped. Scorch Trials hinges on the characters’ success at reaching the mountains on the horizon, where the Right Arm — a force for good that would offer a safe haven free of the plague that is ravaging the rest of humanity — is supposed to reside.

Then Dylan O’Brien contracted the flu, was out for two days, and came back only to break a leg in the middle of a scene. “The whole end scene he’s got a broken leg. However, despite what appears to be significant manpower on the side of the evil scientists who are looking for a cure but suppressing the power of youth, the teenagers appear to cross the empty desert without any problem at all. 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).

You can see him hobbling,” said Ball on a recent afternoon at his office in the San Fernando Valley. “I was like, ‘I’m never taking off this hat again.'” In the end, this perfect storm of chaos only added two days to the schedule and they still came in under budget. And they manage to do all of this with the slowest reflexes known to man, especially in the case of their leader, Thomas, who freezes in place every time there is danger and runs out the clock to ratchet up the tension. With the first “Maze Runner,” which was made for $34 million and earned over $340 million worldwide last year, Ball has proven himself to be a pro who can deliver. Thomas senses this immediately, but he has to convince the others, including Minho (Ki Hong Lee), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Frypan (Dexter Darden) and Winston (Alexander Flores).

A smattering of flashbacks could have been added without any trouble in order to present a more holistic picture of the characters’ existence-defining tribulations. 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. While we assume at the outset that Scorch Trials’s Earth is a future version of our own (not unlike the barely recognizable Chicago ofDivergent/ Insurgent or the New York City signified by the remnants of the Manhattan Bridge in Oblivion), a bridge halfway through makes it clear this pure fantasy.

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. The giant suspension bridge, which bears a striking resemblance to the Golden Gate and Manhattan bridges, is in fact entirely different in appearance and does not correspond to any bridge of the sort in the present day. 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.

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. Most of the film, with the exception of a thrilling chase scene up a crumbling skyscraper, is zombie-like: It moves at a steady pace but is without spirit or reflexive capacity. Luckily for the team, they find (working) flashlights in the unlikeliest of places, and somehow the young men even manage to shave on a regular basis, despite them traipsing around a dystopian future with only the barest of supplies and being always cognizant that death lurks behind the next corner.

While the second film in a trilogy is almost always the worst (although it would be remiss of me if I failed to point out the exception to the rule: The Empire Strikes Back), this particular stint in the desert brings almost nothing to the story except a change in location. The only real treat on the acting front is Patricia Clarkson, the scientist heading up the search for a vaccine who is both caring and motherly as well as cold and eminently unlikable. The third film, currently scheduled for release in the Czech Republic in January 2017, will certainly be a wonderful improvement, and while the first two parts of this trilogy have been very disappointing, there is still hope. Among the workstations and flannel shirts strewn on the couches, there’s a model of R2-D2, and posters for 1980s adventure cult classics like “The Goonies” and Joe Dante’s “Explorers” are hanging about. He laughs that even the baseball cap is some “Indiana Jones”-style extension of his person, or from watching too many Steven Spielberg behind-the-scenes clips. “Spielberg, Cameron and Zemeckis are the guys for me.

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