“The Scorch Trials” and the problem with film series

Courtesy of 20th Century Fox
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Our story opens with a small cohort of adventurers leaving the world they knew to find salvation at a settlement in the mountains. Along the way, they are beset on all sides by dangers and lots and lots of tedium. By the time they reach their promised land, they realize that everything they were promised is a lie, there’s a smattering of betrayal and everything culminates in a fiery, unsatisfying climax.

I’m sorry, I guess I’ve been thinking of “The Hobbit” again. Or “The Scorch Trials.” I can’t tell them apart, and they’re both equally disappointing.

Our story opens with a flashback, followed by a dream sequence within a dream sequence and only serves to get more complicated from there. Petyr Baelish (Aidan GIllen), sans moustache and now calling himself Janson, has celebrated from leaving Sansa Stark at Winterfell for (redacted due to “Game of Thrones” spoilers) to torment another group of teenagers. The group who I assume is from the first movie arrives at a compound that contains a bunch of maze runners from other mazes. I guess the first title is kind of a misnomer then. It should have been called the Mazes Runners, or something equally idiotic.

The maziest of the maze runners is Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), who uncovers a sinister plot hatched by the obviously evil compound leaders and leaves with his group of other plucky, teenage heroes who represent almost every conceivable ethnic background. All the filmmakers needed was one additional supporting actor in a wheelchair and they would have been able to fill out their political correctness bingo card. Maybe the first movie wasn’t wheelchair accessible.

Upon their escape, Baelish/Janson warns everyone that even though they’re fleeing from “WCKD,” (pronounced wicked), the heroes have no hope of surviving the harshness of the “Scorch.” Adding that even if the “Cranks” don’t get them, the “Flare” will stop them before they reach the “Right Hand.” While it may seem like I’m presenting a series of disjointed nouns out of context, the film does an extremely poor job of defining who or what these terms are. For my own personal enjoyment, I decided to believe that the teens were fleeing from “Wicked,” the musical sensation about the witch from the Wizard of Oz, to make their way in the land of Jason Statham movie titles, kind of like my modus operandi when my girlfriend suggests what we should do on dates.

In the end, which I’m just going to spoil because I hate this stupid film, the group teams up with some resistance force and engages in a heated firefight with WCKD’s trained soldiers. After, the girl member of the group, Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), who has been acting suspicious and noncommittal the entire film reveals that she’s actually a double agent, in a move that surprised absolutely no one. A few people die, and the group of teens, now down a couple members, decides to walk all the way back the way they came to take the fight to WCKD, rendering the entire plot of the movie pointless.

You see, this is the problem with the middle films in series. The first film is all about world building and character introduction, while the last film usually contains the climactic finale. This leaves the middle film as a placeholder, the intermission between the two far superior parts of any story. If your characters don’t grow in any way and the only plot movement involves physical movement to a new locale, your film serves no purpose. The group could have stayed at the compound for all the plot matters, as I’m sure that the third movie will begin with the heroes going back to Wicked’s headquarters.

I chose this movie mainly to see how impenetrable the “Maze Runner” mythos is, and dumb names aside, the film does show a consistent effort to make their heroes likeable and the villains equally detestable. There are some scenes that show surprising amounts of levity, and the highlight of the film involves the heroes having to survive in some sort of LSD-rave party that mimics the machinations of the darkest part of David Bowie’s subconscious.

Aside from these few sterling moments, the film makes a few unwanted advances into the personal space of other post-apocalyptic franchises. Video game fans who see this film may notice that the plot seems remarkably close to Naughty Dog’s “The Last of Us,” from the plant-based zombies, the long periods of parkour in abandoned cities, to the resistance force residing in the mountains. I can’t say for sure if this was intentional, or if the whole post-apocalyptic zombie story formula has been so overplayed by now that film and video game franchises have started repeating themselves in a vicious cycle.

This is usually the point in my reviews where I would recommend the film to fans of the franchise, but this is an exercise in futility on my part, as fans have already seen, analyzed and discussed the film with their other 14-year-old friends in the car ride home. Maybe I’m just jaded and can’t be satisfied by the toned-down action prevalent in young-adult film adaptations. I need violence and originality in my action movies and this film simply didn’t cut it. Besides, if I wanted to watch a bunch of oblivious teenagers point flashlights at unconvincing monsters, I’d watch “Scooby Doo.”

Rating: 1.5 stars

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