Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), the young protagonist of the post-apocalyptic teen action films The Maze Runner and Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials has a pathological aversion to systems of control. He and his friends discover that they have been subjects in experimental trials at the hands of WCKD, the World Catastrophe Kill Zone Department. The scientific organization is searching for a cure to the “flare” virus that has decimated the earth’s population, and what they need is sweet, sweet teenage blood, which is immune to the virus that turns the infected into zombies. This was established in The Maze Runner, and in Scorch Trials, director Wes Ball puts the pedal to the floor in terms of thematics, scope and bombast — everything is faster, bigger, and scarier. Thomas, we’re definitely not in the Glade anymore.
Where he finds himself, along with his pals who escaped from the Glade and its surrounding maze, is in a helicopter touching down in a vast desert, picking up almost exactly where the first film left off, with a quick dream sequence to fill in the backstory. Taken to a warehouse medical facility, the teens are assured that they are safe from WCKD, but Thomas is not buying it, especially coming from the mouth of the world’s pre-eminent smooth-talking slimeball, actor Aidan Gillen, who plays evil Mr. Janssen.
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Like a caged rat, Thomas has a preternatural tendency to and ability for escape, and he quickly breaks the crew out into wasteland of The Scorch, all sand dunes and crumbling cities filled with flare zombies, in hopes of finding a resistance army. Free of the titular maze, Scorch Trials is able to do every action sequence on a larger scale, but it still feels like relentless running in circles. When Thomas sighs that he’s tired of running, we’re tired too. It’s a testament to the effectiveness of the sequences that we do get exhausted; they are well-executed, particularly the ones in the dark with only strobing flashlights to illuminate their way.
Unlike other post-apocalyptic young adult properties like The Hunger Games and Divergent, Maze Runner is grittier, dirtier, sweatier. Freed of the cold, austere spaces and bunkers that mark those films, out in a Mad Max type world, it feels somewhat real. There are ridiculous and unnecessary monsters, but the stakes are straightforward — Thomas wants him and his friends to be free. He runs and runs without a destination, and Scorch Trials highlights the weaknesses of this idea, but it seems like something a teenager would actually do.
Cast: Dylan O’Brien, Ki Hong Lee, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Kaya Scodelario, Patricia Clarkson, Aiden Gillen, Giancarlo Esposito, Barry Pepper, Lili Taylor.
Director: Wes Ball.
Screenwriter: T.S. Nowlin.
A 20th Century Fox release. Running time: 131 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, drug use, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.