The Gladers are running for their lives again in the second instalment of the Maze Runner franchise: The Scorch Trials. Wes Ball directs again, as his group of survivors are put through the ringer once more in this post-apocalyptic tale. Based on the young adult novels of the same title, a larger budget this time around translates to bigger set pieces and more explosions, but not as much character development.
Taking place directly after the events of the first film, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and his pack of maze runners are rescued from the Glade and taken to a secret militarised base. Here they meet supposed leader, Janson (Aidan Gillen), and are quickly put through a few ‘standard’ tests along with runners from other mazes, before being locked away in segregated bunks. But they soon learn that the span of the evil corporation, WCKD, is far-reaching and are forced to escape into the barren desert lands known as the Scorch. Now they must navigate through the dangerous landscape in hopes of finding a group of rumoured rebels called the Right Arm, all while dealing with zombie-like creatures and the constant threat of WCKD operatives.
As young adult dystopian-fiction, the film rides the line between being shockingly violent but appropriate for younger viewers. The inclusion of the zombie-like infected provides a constant threat, but the survivors never actually use much violent force against them, unlike those in The Walking Dead. There also seems to be a consistent effort to keep them running, rather than fighting, with characters making some rather frustrating choices, like walking past dropped guns multiple times as they escape from danger.
O’Brien (Teen Wolf) does well again as the heroic leader and his character gets the most development, though it’s hampered by his characters continued memory loss and the plot reliance to keep most of his origins a secret. Other returning members of the group are mostly pushed to the side as a result but, including Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Game of Thrones), Ki Hong Lee (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) and Dexter Darden (Joyful Noise). While still being present for most of the action, they aren’t required to do much more than just follow O’Brien and run. Kaya Scodelario (Skins) gets off a bit easier, and has a little more to do than the others towards the end in what amounts to a foreseeable twist, but it’s a reveal that purposely needs to sideline her in order to occur. Patricia Clarkson (Easy A) also makes a welcome return as the WCKD operation’s leader, but she’s still relegated to giving menacing orders instead of having something of substance to do.
In addition to the cast that has carried over into the sequel, there is a cavalcade (almost in the literal sense) of new characters that are sprinkled throughout the film. Giancarlo Esposito appears as ragged gang leader, a role reminiscent of his time on Revolution, and Rosa Salazar (Insurgent) as his sarcastic, but tough as nails, surrogate daughter. Gillen is just as smarmy as his Littlefinger character on Game of Thrones, although here he gets to play a much more brutish threat. There are also guest appearances by Barry Pepper (True Grit), Lilli Taylor (The Conjuring) and Alan Tudyk (Big Hero 6) along the way. The one criticism here though, is that too many times the film tries to introduce a new character (mainly due to the recognisable actor) by having them do a dramatic slow turn around, but after the first couple of repetitions of this the attempt to emphasise their importance is lost.
It also might seem questionable how the film could possibly follow-up on it’s initial premise of being trapped in a maze without its main hook, and it’s one that’s comparable to other franchises such as The Hunger Games series, which struggled to transition without it’s main gimmick of the games themselves in the latest instalment. But The Scorch Trials is easily able to counteract this by turning the desert into a stand-in maze, and throws one obstacle after the other at the group. In fact, it’s surprising at just how consistently Ball is able to keep the cast running, and when later in the film Thomas remarks that he’s “tired of running”, it’s a sentiment that the audience can readily agree with. While it admittedly begins to feel a little bloated towards the end, returning screenwriter, T. S. Nowlin, does a good job of at least allowing each step in the journey to feel like a natural, logical and needed occurrence.
The downside, is that story wise there isn’t much to go on as the plot is mainly just a series of character decisions made to get them from one set piece to the next. The lack of character development is a similar problem, but both seem to be ignored by keeping the cast continuously moving so that no one at any point gets a chance to stop and reflect (both characters and audience). It’s also the reason that the film gets away with revealing very little of the franchise’s ongoing mysteries, and means that characters become a little grating when speaking with cryptic wordings instead of just explaining themselves, especially towards Thomas’ chosen-one status. Yet, the fact that these are all criticisms that only come into the mind after having watched the film, it’s a real testament to Ball’s direction of action in these scenes and the really terrific set design.
Fans of the original Maze Runner, of young adult fiction and action films in general, will be the targeted audiences here, but if you can suspend your need of plot and character development until the third film, then you’re sure to have a good time too.