Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Kim Hong Lee, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Rosa Salazar, Giancarlo Esposito, and Patricia Clarkson
Running time: 131 Minutes
Directed by: Wes Ball
Year of release: 2015
The Scorch Trials has a dirty job, which prevents it from being all it could be as a stand-alone movie. Whenever you have a saga like this, at least one chapter has to take on the unpleasant duty of exposition. “Who are these people, where are they going, what are the ground rules, and why the heck are those gunships coming up over the ridge?” Usually, the first movie handles that, but The Maze Runner dodged it by providing a neatly contained mystery that could stand on its own. Now we’re out of the maze and into the larger world, which gives The Scorch Trials an awful lot of baggage to carry.
The worst parts of the film simply get that unpleasantness out of the way: dutifully, methodically and without an excessive amount of flair. Our hero Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and his friends find themselves caught between rival factions in the post-apocalyptic wasteland beyond their former prison. A killer disease has decimated the populace, with zombie-like victims causing no end of the trouble and various Thunderdome refugees duking it out with a hastily updated Umbrella Corporation over the possible cure. Said cure may involve harvesting the brain juice of the maze’s survivors, which Thomas obviously isn’t down with.
The specifics here leave a lot to be desired, with the parameters shifting every time another cameo star wanders in, and Patricia Clarkson still sitting on her hands as the franchise’s resident baddie. Its Resident Evil envy starts to show after a while, which doesn’t do it any favors either. And yet director Wes Ball finds enough in the little details to keep things interesting. There’s a lot of rushing to and fro, but The Scorch Trials puts us very firmly in our young heroes’ corner early on, and with a rooting interest at hand, all of the lugubrious explanations become obstacles to overcome instead of anchors weighing them down.
And frankly speaking, this world is kind of cool, provided you don’t poke too hard at the load-bearing walls. The zombies develop a nice (though frustratingly brief) wrinkle that lends them some pizzazz and the sand-swept cityscapes look fetchingly bleak as we tear-ass through them ahead of one threat or another. Those cameos carry their share of pleasures (Alan Tudyk steals the show yet again), and the effects shots feel like an organic part of the story instead of existing for their own sake. I don’t think this movie could have stood up to the behemoths of summer, but in mid-September, surrounded by cinema’s semi-annual stink bombs, it doesn’t look half bad.
Of course, you need to resign yourself to the fact that we’re looking at a Chapter 2 here, which means you both need to see The Maze Runner first (or watch it again just to make sure your scorecard is clear) and accept the fact that it’ll be another year or two to find out what finally happens. The Scorch Trials also suffers from the long shadow of The Hunger Games, which it clearly wishes to emulate and can’t help but suffer in comparison to. Movies really need to stand on their own, without deferring at least a basic sense of closure. This one can’t, and while isn’t the only one to commit such sins, that doesn’t make it any less irritating. The Scorch Trials would have done a lot better for itself had it generated any of its own momentum instead of serving as the bridge between two more interesting entries.
But that doesn’t mean this series is devoid of its own charms, and while a minor entry in Hollywood’s current obsession with multi-part epics, it still acquits itself with a surprising amount of dignity. At the end of the day, we care about these crazy kids and we want them to turn out all right. That’s more than a lot of movies can say, and The Scorch Trials never takes it for granted. Until Part III arrives to wrap things up (hopefully with a little more flourish), it’s still enough to sustain us.