by Ken Bakely
Restless to the point of blowing itself out, Wes Ball’s Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials is a professionally mounted but utter mess of a film, stumbling episodically and robotically for 132 interminable minutes, only occasionally surfacing for a well-shot sequence or an inspired bit of aesthetic design (an admirably bonkers action setpiece scored to Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight” comes to mind). Otherwise, it’s a tepid affair, where the technical credits are spot-on but it’s scripted so incompetently that the onscreen talent is left with little to work with. It’s also inexplicably filmed with all of the old visual tics of its genre (endless pans, zooms, and jerky handheld shots in the middle of staid lines of dialogue) which bounce off of a laughably high count of subject clichés (such as an entirely unironic implementation of the so-called Bait-and-Switch Gunshot), leading to a muddled, regrettable final product which wallows in mediocrity, largely failing to persuade anyone to its side except the most forgiving fans of the source material (although based on reports of the movie diverging wildly from the novel after which it is named, I doubt if even that is true).
The Scorch Trials begins just after the events of The Maze Runner. The former denizens of The Glade, informally lead by Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), have escaped their confines and are now trying to figure out the truth behind the maze. Almost immediately, they are received by Janson (Aidan Gillen), a man who purports to run a facility meant to protect survivors of the various mazes from the virus which has ravaged the climate of the outside world and utterly obliterated civilization. However, the truth soon emerges that Janson, and his operatives, are not who they say they are, and the Gladers are on the run once more, searching for an elusive destination. The journey is treacherous – the remnants of humanity have devolved into lawlessness, in the crumbled ruins of once standing cities, and as one character implies, the whole thing is more dangerous than the lethal traps they had emerged from to begin with.
The film is clunky and disjointed, careening arbitrarily from one segment to another, featuring the characters assembling, being attacked, and then scattering off to another location. Sometimes a scene is inserted which gives us a break from the banal proceedings, such as a creatively shot moment in which two characters stumble around a speakeasy in the middle of nowhere, experiencing hallucinations after the nightclub’s owner (Alan Tudyk) forces them to drink absinthe, in a ploy to disorient them and prevent them from extracting valuable information. But interesting, surreal filmmaking like this by far the exception to the rule in this droll second installment, which serves as a mushy bridge from the beginning to the end.
However, it is unclear whether or not The Scorch Trials fails because of T.S. Nowlin’s screenplay adaptation of James Dashner’s novel. The final cut reeks of careless snipping from studio executives, attempting to turn the movie into a different kind of thriller while hemorrhaging level-headed pacing and character development in the process. The Maze Runner is a series with an interesting concept which could have been excitingly adapted and carried stimulating social subtext, like the better entries within its subgenre. But so far, little else has been seen except perfunctory movies, which are prepackaged to shift onto the next entry and idealistically keep viewers coming back for more, although what is being delivered is never of as much substance as it aims for. This movie ends on the pause between a question and an answer. Need I say more?