Movie Review - Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials
By Ben Gruchow
September 22, 2015
The first thing I’m having a problem with: why, on earth, would you run with WICKED? Oh, it’s acronym’d WCKD in this movie and 2014’s The Maze Runner, sure, but it’s as wide-open a gateway to that pronunciation as ever there was. When we strictly look at monolithic adult institutions in the popular YA franchises: Harry Potter has the Ministry of Magic. The Hunger Games has the Capitol. Twilight has the nonsense-but-appropriately-Italian-sounding Volturi. And Divergent, that poor misbegotten soul, has what I can only assume is Big Academia. With all of these, you can draw a straight line from an innocuous title to a more sinister interpretation. Not so here. WCKD, in this universe, stands for “World Catastrophe Killzone Department”, which a) sounds like the sort of thing you’d read in a third-string comic book series, and b) makes no sense as a phrase, let alone a functioning unit of government or science.
The Scorch Trials is based very loosely on the novel of the same name by James Dashner. It is directed, like the first film was, by Wes Ball. If there’s one thing I’m prepared to grant the movie, it is consistency. Ball hasn’t grown much as a director from last year, but he hasn’t actively regressed either, and this year’s iteration is really no better and no worse than the original. It has higher highs and lower lows, so it all kind of averages out to the same experience. The crucial factor is that The Maze Runner wasn’t a good movie, so something that operates on roughly the same cinematic plane - right down to the ending being one long sad-trombone effect - doesn’t exactly set the blood on fire.
This one also begins somewhat in medias res: having been rescued from the formidably giant manmade structure in the first film, the Maze Runners (i.e. our teenage protagonists, led by Dylan O’Brien as the surname-less Thomas) are being spirited away to a giant facility in the middle of a desert called the Scorch. It’s far in the future, the earth has been mostly destroyed, and the only surviving installations are the sort of military-industrial ones that we see here. Heading the facility is Janson (Aiden Gillen, struggling mightily with an American accent and succeeding not even a little bit); he promises the Runners food and shelter and safety, but there are doubts and odd rules and behaviors and the immortal line, “Who’s side are you on?” Most of the remaining population has been zombified (they’re called Cranks in the movie, but don’t be fooled: they’re desiccated, they shamble around and gurgle, and a bite or scratch from one of them is enough to turn a reasonably healthy Runner into the undead. Also like zombies, they’re not even a little bit scary).
Thus do we find ourselves at the 10-minute mark of a 131-minute movie, and the setting and storyline has about exhausted itself. We know that the Runners are going to escape in the early going, and the rest of the movie plays out as a series of vignettes, each of which exhibit more or less the same traits. We are introduced to a small roster of new characters; they’re onscreen long enough to dispense some new bit of exposition, and we move on to the next roster. There’s an overall goal, and a lot of speed, but little traction or momentum. The only people we’re with for the entirety of the running time are our core cast of Runners, and the movie’s breakneck pace ensures that none of them are developed enough (or onscreen long enough) to capture our sympathy or investment.