“Scorch Trials” Burns but Never Catches Fire

It’s not easy being the second part of a trilogy. The expectations are high, and the rewards don’t really show up until the third and final part (or parts, as is the fashion these days) begins. The job of building on the established narrative so that it can be torn down and subverted is difficult and very often thankless. In many ways, it’s far more difficult than making a solid first part, because even if the first part is weak, the right sequel can make it work in the grand narrative arc.

The Scorch Trials — the second part of the trilogy that started with 2014’s The Maze Runner — certainly builds on the foundation of the first film, but it never quite seems to know how or where or why. It just knows that the film needs to be bigger, louder, and much more than its predecessor, but it does so with a very fragmented focus.

Once again, the story is centered on Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and his small band of friends who’ve escaped the Maze, seemingly to be rescued by a group that claims to keep kids like Thomas safe from WCKD*, the organization that captured them in the first place. Of course, this is all a ruse, and Thomas and company find themselves running again, this time out into what is left of the world…which isn’t much. Most of the world has been turned into a desert wasteland overrun with zombie-like creatures called cranks that are infected with the Flare Virus that started this whole apocalypse thing years prior. Thomas leads his group to the mountains, where a resistance army called the Right Hand is rumored to be massing for a final showdown with WCKD.

Scorch picks almost exactly where Maze Runner left off, and here’s hoping you remembered everything that happened in that film, because none of it’s recapped here. To the credit of returning director Wes Ball, he’s fully committed to getting the story started as quickly as possible. He hits the ground running, and the first part of the film is legitimately heart-pounding because of it. Then he just…kind of stops for a while. Then starts up again. Then stops. Then…well, you get the idea. There is a lot going on in this film, so much so that Ball rarely lingers on any one concept or section of it. The plot is relatively thin (and imminently predictable), but the film moves so quickly between the plot points it has that it’s easy to forgive that.

What isn’t as easy to overlook, however, is the fact that unlike the first film, Ball has sacrificed his cast of characters in favor of the story. Unlike Maze Runner, the characters feel like they’re reacting to the story instead of starring in it. Very few of the characters have much depth, and the returning cast (except for Thomas) gets kind of shoved to the side to make room for the new additions, none of whom make any impact beyond a few cameos that can't be discussed without significant spoilers. Oddly enough, for a film about teenagers, the most memorable new characters are adults: wilderness survivor Jorge (played by Giancarlo Esposito) and smarmy corporate bad-guy Mr. Janson (played by Aidan Gillan, who comes off like a heteronormative, accent-challenged version of Alan Cumming).

What’s unusual about that, too, is that Scorch Trials veers so far away from its source material that it virtually becomes divorced from it. Instead of running parallel to each other, the films and movies are like lines of a 45-degree angle, getting more divorced from each other the longer they go on. That’s both good and bad. The odd, sometimes illogical/sometimes novel conceits of the book would have made for some unexciting cinema and might have severely taxed the audience's suspension of disbelief. On the other hand, what Ball and screenwriter T. S. Nowlin have created doesn’t seem terribly original. A whole lot of the film plays out like a reskinned Resident Evil: Extinction. You have the world-gone-to-desert, video game style mazes and puzzles, lots of guns, and rag-tag survivors, with cranks filling in for the T-Virus zombies and WCKD filling in for the Umbrella Corporation. (Say what you want about Umbrella, but at least they had the good sense not to pick a name that would immediately scare off investors.)

When the film is on its game, it’s truly on its game. The action scenes are often exciting, grippingly dramatic, and even inventive. This is probably the only film ever to feature a bomb whose timer is a vinyl recording of Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight.” It’s when the film takes a break that things start to entropy. The world of The Maze Runner was captivating in its limited scope. By opening up the canvas, The Scorch Trials too often feels like just another post-apocalyptic worldwide zombie nightmare. But at least it’s a mostly entertaining one.

FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / B-

* That stands for World Catastrophe Killzone Department, which doesn’t make any sense and is horribly contrived, but just go with it.

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