‘Maze Runner’ sequel: Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials Review

Published: September 19, 2015

‘Maze Runner’ sequel: Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials Review, As I write this, it’s a lovely, breezy, sunny day, so thoughts turn naturally to the latest dystopian hellhole at the movies, “Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials.”

A year ago the inaugural “Maze Runner” adaptation proved a pleasantly unpleasant surprise. Director Wes Ball’s feature film debut delivered the first in author James Dashner’s trilogy (he wrote two prequels as well) with an earnest, no-nonsense commitment to the protagonist’s waking nightmare. From last year’s Tribune review: “‘The Maze Runner’ works; the movie may be about confinement, but it moves, and Ball has a genuine career ahead of him.”

Jacob Lofland, from left, Alexander Flores and Dylan O’Brien star in Wes Ball’s “Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials.”

I still believe that to be true, though Ball’s workmanlike handling of the second in the trilogy, “The Scorch Trials,” proves mainly that he can keep a franchise from running completely off the rails when the tracks have been laid perilously near a swamp of “dys-lit” cliches.

“The Scorch Trials” opens with slow-motion shots of barbed wire. This is all you need to know. These kids are up against it. The revolution is in their hands, just as it is in “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent” and “Insurgent” and “Allegiant” and “Effulgent” and the rest.

Hero-boy-man Thomas, played by Dylan O’Brien, may be amnesiac, but his addled memory recalls momentary cinematic flashes of the world he knew before being picked for heinous competitive experiments overseen by the members of WICKED, an acronym for World in Catastrophe: Killzone Experiment Department. The thing about this acronym, of course, is that anytime someone in “The Scorch Trials” says something like “What do you remember about WICKED?” you fully expect the answer to be, “Well, it was a popular mediocre musical once upon a time, but something in that insidious power ballad ‘Defying Gravity’ led to what we now know as the end of the world.”

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In “The Scorch Trials,” Thomas and the gang, all fleet-footed “Gladers” in the previous outing, endure the usual allegorical hazing and sorting rituals. They also cope with the zombielike Cranks, who are infected with the Flare. WICKED, re-lettered “WCKD” for the film version, seeks a cure for the Flare. Thomas, et al. are confined to a military compound in an undisclosed location, until their overseers put them in the field for nefarious purposes.

But why wait around for life to begin, and then end? They flee. Around the film’s midpoint, along comes exactly what and who is needed: an actor who can chew it up without slowing it down. All hail Giancarlo Esposito as Jorge, leader of the Cranks. Later, when warring factions take to the hills, Barry Pepper and Lili Taylor pop up as revolutionaries, simultaneously wild-eyed and sympathetic.

Adapted by T.S. Nowlin, the material may be cardboard, but the actors do what they can. Along with O’Brien, the ensemble reunites Kaya Scodelario (maybe more lines next movie? She’s practically a mime here), Ki Hong Lee, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Dexter Darden, Alexander Flores and others from the first, and fresher, “Maze Runner.” It’ll be useful for all of them, and director Ball, to get out of this stuff after one more movie (“The Death Cure”) and into different sorts of projects.


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