Big-screen adaptations of popular book series tend to follow a pretty traditional formula. In most cases, they hew close to the source material – particularly the first film – and tend to play it safe when streamlining the story in order to get from one key plot point to the next in the shortest running time possible. It’s a proven strategy that appeals to both the books’ established fanbase and – the studio hopes – newcomers.
That’s why the Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials is such an anomaly. It offers up an exciting adventure that has little in common with the book that shares its title.
The second installment of a planned trilogy based on James Dashner’s Maze Runner novels, The Scorch Trials continues the saga that began with a group of teenagers trapped in a mysterious labyrinth, only to escape and find themselves in an even more dangerous, post-apocalyptic world. Uncertain who to trust after making their way out of the maze, the group of survivors led by the enigmatic Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) now find themselves on the run again in a ravaged world full of new, terrifying threats.
All of the running in terror leaves little room for quality time with main characters.
The Maze Runner director Wes Ball reprises his role behind the camera for the sequel, and the young cast of returning actors is joined by some familiar, adult faces this time around, including Game of Thrones actor Aidan Gillen, Breaking Bad‘s Giancarlo Esposito, Oscar-nominee Patricia Clarkson (Pieces of April), Firefly actor Alan Tudyk, Emmy-nominated actress Lili Taylor (Six Feet Under, The Conjuring), and 61* star Barry Pepper. Franchise screenwriter TS Nowlin also returns for The Scorch Trials after co-writing last year’s The Maze Runner.
The tagline used in marketing materials for The Scorch Trials is “The maze was just the beginning,” but a more appropriate description of the film might be “Run for your life.” In much the same way last year’s Mad Max: Fury Road seemed like one long, explosive car chase from beginning to end, The Scorch Trials is a frantic sprint for much of its 131-minute running time.
From the opening moments of the movie until the credits roll, The Scorch Trials careens from one chase sequence to another with various cast members sprinting, climbing, or otherwise fleeing in terror from agents of the mysterious organization WCKD, zombie-like “Cranks” affected by the savage “Flare” virus, and other dangers. Fortunately, it does a nice job of making each sequence feel unique with some impressive set pieces.
One particularly memorable sequence has O’Brien and newcomer Rosa Salazar (Insurgent) climbing through the interior of a crumbling skyscraper that’s leaning precariously against another building across a wide avenue. They’re pursued by several Cranks whose advanced stage of the virus has transformed them into savage creatures, and the pair must navigate an MC Escher-like environment of warped staircases, walls, and ceilings within the fallen tower.
All of the running in terror, however, leaves little room for quality time with main characters.
Despite the presence of the aforementioned familiar faces, their characters receive precious little screen time in The Scorch Trials. Esposito and Gillen are the lone standouts of the newcomers, and while Gillen’s much-too-brief role doesn’t allow for much nuance as the smarmy villain, Esposito makes the most of his time on screen with some fun, compelling moments that make his character one of the most interesting of the bunch.
Some genuinely thrilling, entertaining elements help make up for the lack of substance.
The same balance – or more accurately, imbalance – of action vs. character development holds true for the returning cast. The film’s creative team seems to assume that the first installment of the franchise provided all the backstory and development necessary to carry the core characters through to the end of the franchise, and spends little time with any survivors of the maze that doesn’t involve running and a lot of shouting (while running).
Given how quickly things move, this lack of balance only tends to be a problem when the film asks its audience to have an emotional reaction to particular, character-based plot points (i.e., deaths or unexpected shifts in good-bad alignment). Instead of eliciting the intended drama, the break in the action just serves to remind you how little you actually know about the characters.
Still, there are some genuinely thrilling, entertaining elements in The Scorch Trials that make up for the lack of substance beneath all the action. Given how far the story veers off the path of its source material, there are also quite a few surprises for fans of the books – which can be a good thing if handled the right way.
The conclusion of the film feels a little anti-climactic given all of the chaos leading up to it, but The Scorch Trials still manages to leave you wanting more when the credits roll, just as any trilogy’s middle-chapter should.